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New Mexico bill calls for study of controlling federal land

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As lawmakers across the West question the federal government’s ability to manage public lands under its care, New Mexico has taken the first step toward a study of the feasibility of the state assuming control of millions of acres.

Legislation that would establish a commission to study the issue cleared a New Mexico House panel Wednesday on a 9-1 vote, with only one of five Democrats on the committee voting in opposition.

Land transfer and study measures have been introduced in the past, but this marks the first time one of those bills has made it passed its first legislative hurdle with a favorable vote.

The dynamics have changed since Republicans assumed control of the House, and disputes over property and water rights on federal forest land in rural areas have helped drive the debate over the past year.

Most of the lawmakers on the committee that took up the legislation Wednesday are from rural areas.

“I do want answers. I want to know, where do we go from here, because folks we can’t allow the status quo to go on,” said the committee’s chair, Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell. The Roswell Republican spoke about the threat of wildfires and the declining health of the drought-stricken state’s watersheds.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, cast the dissenting vote. He said the state would be no better off when it comes to preventing things like fires. He pointed to Texas, which has a small share of federal land and still experienced a record fire season in 2011.

“I think this is a thinly veiled attempt to transfer lands to the private sector,” he said after the meeting. “If you give it to the state, the state is a lot more likely to sell it and I really am very worried about the future of these public lands if they’re sold off to the highest bidder.”

Other critics, including sportsmen, environmental groups and American Indian tribes, questioned the state’s ability to pay for management and whether public access would be more limited under state control.

While no legislation calling for a transfer has been introduced, sportsmen and environmentalists recently rallied outside the capitol in opposition of the idea. They pointed to polls that show people in New Mexico and other western states oppose assuming full control of federal lands and absorbing the associated costs.

Ranching organizations, local government groups and some state land managers voiced support for the bill, saying it would not change anything, only clear the way for New Mexico to study the matter.

Tribal members said the legislation offered them no representation on the proposed commission, which would consist of four lawmakers, several state agency officials and three public members.

The commission would be required to take testimony from a wide spectrum of groups though public meetings and periodically report back to lawmakers. The commission’s work would have to be completed and a final report submitted to the Legislative Finance Committee by the end of 2016.