SANTA FE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed bipartisan legislation Thursday intended to deliver a historic injection of funding into land and water conservation programs in New Mexico.
The measure, Senate Bill 9, establishes new legacy and permanent funds that supporters say will provide a sustainable stream of cash for projects ranging from watershed restoration to the breeding of game and fish.
“We have to start thinking big,” Lujan Grisham said Thursday. “It’s a generational investment in the well-being of the state.”
The goal is to fill the legacy and permanent funds with hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years, creating an endowment-like system that pays for ongoing programs in outdoor recreation, forest restoration and similar efforts.
The legislation — when combined with the state budget proposal — authorizes $100 million in immediate funding, $50 million of which goes toward carrying out projects over the next four years.
The remaining $50 million goes into a permanent fund, where it will be invested and be available for future projects.
Demis Foster of Conservation Voters New Mexico described the legislation as “the largest investment in conservation in New Mexico history.”
The bill was jointly sponsored by Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec; Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe; and Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces. It picked up some bipartisan support in both chambers, clearing the Senate on a vote of 33-9 and the House 54-11.
Neville said Thursday the proposal is carefully balanced to provide money for programs that will complement each other, reflecting the interconnected nature of forests, range lands and water sources.
Annual funding will be shared among programs dedicating to removing plants that aren’t native to New Mexico, managing forests and watersheds, protecting river habitat, developing healthy soils, promoting outdoor recreation for low-income families and offering cultural programs that aid working farms and ranches.
Small said the goal is to create long-lasting programs that strengthen every New Mexican’s “connection to the land.”
Brittany Fallon, western lands senior policy manager at Western Resource Advocates, a group dedicated to fighting climate change, said New Mexico had been one of the only states in the West without a conservation fund of this kind.
It has kept the state, she said, from fully tapping into federal funding streams that will match state funds at a rate of three to one.
“We’ve been leaving $3 on the table because we couldn’t come up with $1 to leverage,” Fallon said.
Neville said the state’s new source of matching funds could bring in tens of millions of federal dollars.
An unlikely coalition that included Chevron, farming and ranching groups, and environmental advocacy organizations backed the bill. Several supporters credited Sarah Cottrell Propst, the governor’s Cabinet secretary for energy, minerals and natural resources, with crafting language in the bill that could win broad support.
Opponents, in turn, said they wanted more assurance the bill wouldn’t provide funding for land acquisition that would take property from private owners.
Preparing for wildlife corridors
Lujan Grisham also signed legislation Thursday establishing a wildlife corridors fund intended to pay for efforts to reduce animal and vehicle collisions. The corridors provide a safe pathway for wildlife crossing highways or other barriers that segment their habitat.
At least $5 million in the state budget proposal is appropriated to the state Department of Transportation for wildlife corridors.
“New Mexico is in position to lead the country on this issue,” Michael Dax of the Wildlands Network said during the bill-signing ceremony at the REI store in Santa Fe.
Lujan Grisham, who said she enjoys fishing and skiing, said both bills are part of the state’s strategy for addressing climate change and ensuring the survival of wild areas for future generations.
New Mexico is still recovering from a devastating fire season last year, when the state endured the two largest wildfires in its recorded history. Experts say New Mexico is likely to face earlier snow melts, higher temperatures and a more arid climate for at least the next 50 years.