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Apple orchard’s fate arises in land office race

SANTA FE, N.M. — The destruction of Dixon’s Apple Orchard from wildfire and flooding three years ago is being used by Republican challenger Aubrey Dunn in his campaign against Democratic Land Commissioner Ray Powell.

A television ad and a longer video on Dunn’s website feature Becky Mullane, a former owner of the orchard, criticizing Powell for his actions after the Las Conchas Fire.

Mullane says the fire and floods devastated her family, but Powell is “the one that hurt us the most.”

Ray Powell

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Aubrey Dunn

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The ad revives the dispute between Mullane and her husband and the State Land Office over the orchard that her grandparents started managing in 1944 in a canyon near Cochiti.

Because of a 2006 land swap, the orchard and its buildings and other assets were owned by the State Land Office. After the site was ruined by the fire in the summer of 2011 and the subsequent monsoon-season flooding, the Mullanes wanted to sell their lease to San Felipe Pueblo for $2.8 million.

Powell objected. The Mullanes’ lease – signed by his predecessor, Pat Lyons – included an adjacent 8,800 acres for which the Mullanes were paying $100 a year.

Powell said this week he “couldn’t in good conscience” agree to continue that arrangement. His dispute with the Mullanes went through an administrative process and eventually to court.

Dunn – who grew up on an apple orchard near Cloudcroft – says on his website that Powell created “roadblocks and additional legal fees” that cost the Mullanes as well as taxpayers.

The matter was settled just five months ago: The Mullanes would receive $2 million to give up the lease, with Cochiti Pueblo paying $1.8 million of that.

The pueblo is leasing the land, which has historical and cultural significance to the tribe. Over the next five years, the pueblo will find other land, buy it, then swap with the Land Office for the land it is now leasing.

Mullane, who has moved out of state, complains in the video that Powell wasn’t concerned about the family’s loss, but rather about his re-election.

Powell said it was “a very sad situation,” made worse because the Mullanes hadn’t insured their business.

“You can’t spend public dollars on bailing out a private business, no matter how much your heart goes out to them,” the land commissioner said.

One of Dunn’s campaign themes is that poor land management results in overgrown forests, massive fires, and flash floods. He cites the Las Conchas Fire and the Little Bear Fire, near Ruidoso, in 2012. Those fires began on national forests.

Powell said one of his priorities has been to reduce the fuels on state lands that are near communities, in an effort to prevent catastrophic fires.