A healthy outdoors is a healthy part of New Mexico’s fiscal landscape.
So the chance to unlock potentially millions of dollars in federal matching funds to support land and water conservation projects, via Senate Bill 9, is one that should not be missed.
This is good news that reverberates well beyond the health of the land. A “Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund” would allow for investments the state is currently unable to make in trails, forest health and access to open spaces that underpin the fast-growing outdoor recreation economy in New Mexico. And embedded in that are jobs, tourism dollars, reliably clean water and fire safety.
Last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the bipartisan bill, which would establish the state’s first dedicated funding source for conservation, agriculture and outdoor recreation programs.
The $50 million fund would make disbursements beginning in fiscal 2024 to existing programs spread across six agencies.
Brittany Fallon, senior policy manager for lands at Western Resource Advocates, says it would mean New Mexico would no longer leave “money on the table” by not having available dollars that are often matched three-to-one by federal agencies.
And it’s impressive how broad the pro-Legacy Fund coalition is — wildlife advocates, environmental groups, outdoor recreationists, ranchers and farmers, hunters and anglers and community activists all support the measure. It’s easy to see why. It doesn’t create new programs or new bureaucracy. As Fallon explained, the fund would funnel money to 10 existing state programs that are popular, have staff, function well and reach every community in the state. This “comprehensive suite” of programs runs the gamut from river protection, wildfire mitigation, outdoor recreation and equitable access to the outdoors to support for farmers and ranchers.
The Governor’s Office says these prioritize land and water conservation, forest and watershed health, outdoor recreation and infrastructure, agriculture and working lands, historic preservation and wildlife species protection.
A second, permanent trust fund would be established with an initial investment of $25 million that would be managed by the State Investment Council, similar to the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund. Interest earned would be disbursed annually to existing state programs that have a proven track record of success, are popular in communities, or have rarely been funded to their full potential.
The early childhood trust fund got a $300 million start-up appropriation in 2020 and also receives energy-related tax collections in years when total state cash reserves exceed 25% of spending levels. As a result, the early childhood trust fund is projected to reach nearly $4.3 billion by the end of the 2025 fiscal year. Setting up a similar permanent revenue stream for our outdoor landscape, perhaps above that proposed $25 million, would be a smart move that literally invests in our state.
Last fall, the New Mexico Economic Development Department reported New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economy is outpacing the national average in three principal measurements: GDP, employment and compensation. Based on the data, the economic output for the outdoor recreation economy in New Mexico was $2.3 billion, an increase of $400 million over 2020. Imagine the growth that could occur with some robust investment in the state’s recreation infrastructure.
Manage lands for long-term
As our Legislature considers a dedicated funding stream for conservation projects, the Biden administration can do its part to ensure New Mexico’s outdoors legacy by giving the Bureau of Land Management clear marching orders. The nation’s largest land manager (245 million acres nationwide) must do more to bring its mission into balance — something U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., has been urging for some time. The BLM has been long on multiple uses — oil and gas development, grazing and recreation — and short of “sustained yield,” or managing lands for resiliency and sustainability.
“Agency policies should be clear that designated areas like Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, Backcountry Conservation Areas and Wilderness Study Areas can and should be used to safeguard wildlife corridors, restore damaged landscapes and protect remaining wildlands,” Heinrich and other senators from Colorado and California wrote in a November letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
If anyone in Washington, D.C., should understand the role that public lands play in western states’ economies and quality of life, it’s New Mexico’s Haaland. Between her and Biden, they must get the BLM to use its existing authority to protect our at-risk public landscapes for future generations.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.