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Panel OKs study of federal land transfer to state

SANTA FE – “It’s only a study” is the refrain from lawmakers and supporters who want to create a commission to look at options for transferring federal lands to state control.

But that didn’t keep Indian tribes, along with conservation, sportsmen’s, wildlife and acequia organizations, from lining up to testify against it at a House committee Wednesday.

They protested that the notion of taking over federal lands is unconstitutional and unworkable, and that studying it would be a waste of time and money.

Unpersuaded, the House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee approved House Bill 291 overwhelmingly, by a 9-1 vote. It would have to clear two more committees before it reached the full House for a vote.

The legislation – backed by the State Land Office and the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez – would form a 17-member New Mexico Federal Land Management Study Commission, consisting mostly of state officials or their appointees and four legislators.

The commission over 18 months would study options including taking over federal lands, swapping state and federal lands, and transferring state and federal lands to Indian tribes and land grants.

Supporters – including farming and ranching groups – complained about federal mismanagement of New Mexico lands, citing catastrophic wildfires and restricted access.

“We’re not talking about making public lands private. We’re talking about keeping them public, just managing them here at home,” said attorney Blair Dunn, son of Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn.

Opponents insisted that the end game is privatization, and that public lands would be sold off. They pointed to Ariz. Gov. Jan Brewer’s 2012 veto of legislation demanding the federal government turn over millions of acres to that state.

“It’s unconstitutional, it’s unaffordable and it’s unwanted,” said John Crenshaw of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

Indian leaders complained that they were left off the commission and that protections in federal law for their religious and cultural sites would be jeopardized.