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Wilderness proposal draws fire

New Mexico’s U.S. senators are cheering a Senate energy bill’s inclusion of protected wilderness areas in the Rio Grande National Monument near Taos, but the plan has a significant opponent: New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn.

The energy bill approved by the Senate last week would set aside 21,420 acres, dubbed the Cerro del Yuta Wilderness and Rio San Antonio Wilderness areas, within the 242,500-acre national monument created by President Barack Obama two years ago. Dunn issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the designation.

AUBREY DUNN

DUNN: Federal designation a “land grab”

The land commissioner noted that 1,280 acres within the wilderness area are state Trust Lands, which are generally leased for livestock grazing, mineral extraction, and other projects that generate revenues devoted to New Mexico schools, public hospitals and other institutions. Dunn described the federal wilderness designation as a “land grab” that is “tantamount to a slap in the face of New Mexico’s schoolchildren.”

“With low oil prices already impacting revenues from state Trust Lands, the designation of these new wilderness areas will only add insult to injury and further reduce revenues in support of New Mexico’s schoolchildren,” Dunn said.

The federal government, he said, should transfer Bureau of Land Management lands to the state to compensate for the loss of state Trust Lands. A spokeswoman for Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who authored legislation establishing the wilderness areas, said the designation will not affect the Land Office’s ability to lease the land and that the senator is open to the idea of a federal land swap for state lands protected under wilderness designations.

A Land Office spokeswoman told the Journal that state lands put into protected status during the Obama administration could generate an estimated $9.2 million per year in lease revenues for the state.

BISON BIPARTISANSHIP

The once-endangered bison took one step closer to becoming the official “national mammal” of the United States after the U.S. House passed legislation making the designation on Wednesday. The Senate is expected to approve the legislation and send it to President Obama today.

Sens. Martin Heinrich and John Hoeven, R-N.D., co-authored the Senate legislation, proving that the Senate can reach bipartisan agreement on something if it’s not particularly controversial.

“Bison are a uniquely American animal and are the embodiment of American strength and resilience,” Heinrich said in a statement. “The bison has been an important part of our culture for many generations, especially in New Mexico, across the West, and in Indian Country. Recognition of our new national mammal will bring a new source of pride for Americans – just like the bald eagle – and also bring greater attention to ongoing conservation and species recovery efforts. I hope that in my lifetime, thanks to a broad coalition of conservation ranchers, wildlife advocates, and tribal nations, we will see bison return to the prominent place they once occupied in our nation’s shortgrass prairies.”

According to Heinrich’s office, the population of bison in North America once exceeded 40 million but that number dwindled to fewer than 1,000 by the end of the 19th century. A concerted conservation effort led by then-President Theodore Roosevelt helped fuel a resurgence of the noble animal.

Bison now live in all 50 states.


Michael Coleman: mcoleman@abqjournal.com.

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