ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has suggested that the Department of Game and Fish be asked to pay as much as $5 million annually to secure access to state trust lands for hunters, anglers and trappers, according to emails obtained by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
The State Land Office, which Dunn heads, has been negotiating with the department over the past few months for a new access agreement for next year.
An update on the negotiations is on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the Game Commission in Roswell. It’s the last scheduled commission meeting of the year – and viewed as the unofficial deadline for figuring out whether, and under what terms, hunters would have access to 8 million acres of state lands next year.
Both sides say they expect an agreement to be reached but, at week’s end, negotiations were still ongoing.
The State Land Office currently charges the department $200,000 a year for access, which Dunn contends isn’t nearly enough.
He has variously suggested $2 million for a year; $1 million for a year; $4 million over three years; and an alternative that would tie a long-term easement to a land acquisition deal in the White Peak area in northeastern New Mexico.
Emails obtained in a public records request by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, and viewed by the Journal, indicate that Dunn has also floated another proposal: Game and Fish would pay $1 million for an interim year; an appraisal of the trust lands to ascertain their value to sportsmen would be done; and payment to the State Land Office would be capped at $5 million annually.
Wildlife Federation President John Crenshaw, in a recent news release, called $1 million “exorbitant,” $2 million “extortion” and $5 million “ludicrous.”
“From here, it looks like Commissioner Dunn is trying to price New Mexico hunters, anglers and trappers off lands we’ve been using for generations,” he said in the statement.
The federation agrees the fee should be increased somewhat but says that should be accompanied by more benefits: camping on state trust lands, for example, and improved access and information for hunters.
The emails also indicated that Dunn in September rejected a counteroffer from the Department of Game and Fish of nearly $2 million over the next three years, in increments of $600,000, $650,000 and $700,000.
Dunn denies the higher fees he proposes are an attack on sportsmen. A recent release from his office said he “simply wants to do what is right as the trustee for the State Land Trust and the children of New Mexico.”
The Land Office administers 9 million surface acres – of which about 8 million are suitable for hunting – and 13 million subsurface acres, with the revenue going to schools and colleges, hospitals and other public institutions.
Dunn has said raising the annual fee by $800,000, to $1 million, would provide money for teachers or for an early childhood development program.
He also disputes the wildlife group’s contention that hunters, anglers and trappers – whose license fees fund the Department of Game and Fish – would bear the brunt of the increase. Dunn says the department has plenty of money in reserve and could absorb the higher fees without raising license costs.
The department is projected to end this budget year with a nearly $40 million balance in its main operating fund, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
The next one-year easement would cover the period from April 1, 2016, through March 31, 2017.
The Game Commission has discussed the possibility that trust lands could be closed to sportsmen if no agreement were reached.
Crenshaw estimated that could affect at least 7,000 people – primarily hunters – and be particularly problematic in northeastern New Mexico, where there isn’t as much federal land available for hunting as in other parts of the state.
Dunn’s proposal involving White Peak – where there has been an access dispute for years – was to have Game and Fish buy 10,000 acres from a rancher for a proposed cost of $27 million and give the acreage to the State Land Office in return for a 20-year easement to trust lands.
The Department of Game and Fish concluded the deal would be illegal.