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Heinrich enters land-grab debate

Sen. Martin Heinrich penned an op-ed in the New York Times last week that took aim at Republicans and conservative interest groups who advocate a return of federal lands to the states.

In a piece titled “The Land Grab Out West,” the New Mexico Democrat warned of an increasingly heated battle over ownership of America’s public lands. He cited as a prime example Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff last spring with Bureau of Land Management authorities, who demanded he pay more than $1 million in overdue grazing fees.

“The confrontation made him the face of what some say is a renewed Sagebrush Rebellion to turn over America’s public lands to state control,” Heinrich wrote. “Mr. Bundy does not represent the West, however. And the campaign to transfer to the states or even sell off our shared lands should not be mistaken for the mainstream values of Westerners whose way of life depends on the region’s land and water.”

The column triggered some applause from the national environmental community – a key component of Heinrich’s constituency. But not everyone was cheering. More on that in a moment.

Heinrich’s op-ed went on to explain how Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Hebert, signed a law in 2012 demanding that the federal government return more than 20 million acres “owned by United States taxpayers” to the state of Utah.

“This included national forests and grasslands and such jewels as Lake Powell and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area,” said Heinrich, who regularly hunts, fishes and camps in national forests and on other federal lands in New Mexico.

Heinrich points out that while similar state-level efforts to claim federal land have failed in New Mexico and Colorado, legislatures in Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming are considering task forces to press ahead.

The senator lamented that state governments are being sold “snake oil” by conservative special interests hoping that states will sell the lands “to the highest bidder.” He predicts that those bidders would primarily be oil and gas interests that would make the lands off-limits to recreation enthusiasts.

“Proponents argue that states are better equipped to manage the West’s natural wonders than the United States Forest Service and other national land management agencies,” Heinrich wrote. “What they don’t say is that their proposal would raise the possibility that some of the lands would be turned over to the highest bidder and that Western taxpayers would be saddled with the costs of overseeing the rest.”

Heinrich also put in a plug for legislation he is sponsoring, dubbed the “HUNT Act,” that would create more access to federal lands for recreational use.

Not surprisingly, the Heinrich op-ed wasn’t universally endorsed.

Paul Gessing, director of New Mexico’s conservative Rio Grande Foundation, responded Thursday, accusing Heinrich of not only being “wrong,” but “inverting the truth completely.”

“It is actually the federal government that has ‘grabbed’ New Mexicans’ lands,” Gessing said. “In the past two years, Heinrich endorsed the federal government’s placing of more than 783,000 acres of New Mexico land, much of it private or ‘multiple-use’ in two highly restrictive ‘monument’ designations (the Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountain monuments).”

Gessing pointed out that the Rio Grande del Norte and gigantic Organ Mountain designations were accomplished by a mere stroke of President Obama’s pen.

“Ironically, while any effort to return some federal lands to New Mexico control would require the support and buy-in of large numbers of state and local officials, these two wilderness areas were declared by the Obama administration without so much as a single vote in Congress,” Gessing wrote.

“Given the environmental group’s penchant for shoving local interests and traditional users aside in order to increase the size of the federal estate (consider it one-stop-shopping for the environmental lobby), Heinrich vastly prefers federal control of lands to private or state control,” he added.

Gessing said Heinrich’s op-ed perpetuated “myths” that the lands in question are national parks or native lands.

“Our efforts are focused on federal lands managed by the National Forest and Bureau of Land Management,” he wrote.

Gessing also pointed out that none other than New Mexico’s current Land Commissioner, Ray Powell, a Democrat, has pursued a plan that would have the feds turn over one million acres of BLM lands in the state, primarily parcels near interstates and in the oil- and gas-rich Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico.

“Democrats, too, understand that bureaucrats in Washington are too isolated and ignorant – no matter how well-intentioned – to understand the unique needs of Western states,” Gessing wrote.

“The reality is that Heinrich and his radical friends in Washington are the ones grabbing lands in New Mexico and elsewhere,” Gessing said. “Advocates of restoring state control over these lands are attempting to restore some balance and sound management policies when it comes to large tracts of Western land.”

Email: mcoleman@abqjournal.com.

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