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Proposed shift in land control raises concerns

Rolla Hinkle II, 82, owns a 33,000-acre ranch, including 4,000 acres leased from BLM, in the vast extension area north of White Sands Missile Range. A federal proposal would put BLM land in the area under control of the Department of Defense. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Rolla Hinkle II, 82, owns a 33,000-acre ranch, including 4,000 acres leased from BLM, in the vast extension area north of White Sands Missile Range. A federal proposal would put BLM land in the area under control of the Department of Defense. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A federal proposal that would give the Department of Defense control over 300,000 acres now managed by the Bureau of Land Management north of White Sands Missile Range has raised concerns about implications for area ranchers and the proposed SunZia transmission project.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said this week he added the amendment to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act to give the Department of Defense “final say” over future development projects in a vast tract called the northern expansion area north of the 3,200-square-mile missile range.

The act passed the House of Representatives on May 22. No comparable amendment is included in the Senate version now under consideration.

In an interview Thursday, Pearce said the measure will not affect the SunZia transmission project – a 500-mile high-voltage transmission line intended to carry renewable energy from New Mexico to Arizona, crossing a 45-mile stretch of the northern extension area.

“It can’t affect anything in the past,” Pearce said of the amendment. “It will only affect projects going forward.”

Pearce and the military have opposed running the transmission line through the northern extension area, saying it could interfere with missile testing at White Sands. They demanded that SunZia bury the lines or reroute them north outside the extension area.

b01_jd_20jul_white sandsResidents in the northern extension area have contracts with the Department of Defense that require them to evacuate with 72 hours’ notice when missile testing poses a risk of strikes, base officials and ranchers said. The 1,200-square-mile tract is a checkerboard of federal, state and private land ownership.

In May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed to drop opposition to the SunZia transmission project if developers agree to bury five miles of line on the northern flank of the extension area.

Brig. Gen. Timothy R. Coffin, commanding general of White Sands Missile Range, also said Pearce’s amendment is unlikely to affect SunZia. The amendment would give the Department of Defense greater control over future development projects, he said.

“We think it is a reasonable solution to ensure that there aren’t future encroachments on the range,” Coffin said.

White Sands has already taken early steps to comply with the SunZia agreement announced in May, he said.

Ian Calkins, spokesman for SunZia, declined to comment on the amendment this week, saying the company is studying the proposal.

The measure has alarmed area ranchers, who said they were worried Department of Defense control could threaten their long-standing grazing leases with BLM.

“We don’t know what it means for the Department of Defense to have control of the land,” said Kate Hoover, who owns a 4,500-acre ranch near Bingham, just north of the 3,200-square-mile missile range.

Ranchers learned of the proposal only in recent weeks, she said.

Pearce responded that BLM will continue to manage grazing leases on federal lands in the northern extension area. The amendment will not bar access to federal lands by ranchers or hunters, he said.

White Sands officials held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the proposal after ranchers began calling base officials to express their concerns, Coffin said.

Pearce participated in the meeting by telephone.

A Journal reporter and photographer were denied entrance to the meeting, held at the base’s Stallion Gate, 25 miles southeast of Socorro.

Pearce said he has not spoken with senators about the proposal and doesn’t know if the amendment will be included in the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said any proposal to put BLM land under control of the Department of Defense would require a “thorough, public and transparent process” with input from the community before Heinrich would consider supporting it.

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