SANTA FE – President Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall could run into a roadblock in New Mexico, in the form of more than 22 miles of state-owned land and mineral rights within 600 feet of the border.
A group of Democratic state lawmakers filed legislation this week that would bar state land from being used, sold or transferred to facilitate the construction of the new border wall. If approved, the bill could set up a legal showdown between the state and the federal government.
One of the legislators backing the bill, Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said Wednesday that the measure, House Bill 292, is an attempt to respond proactively to what he described as an “ill-conceived idea.”
“It’s more than a message,” Martinez told the Journal regarding the proposed legislation. “It’s saying, ‘You will not use state land for this purpose.’ ”
However, State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, has also waded into the debate with a different approach – and a proposal for Trump.
In a letter he sent to the president Wednesday, Dunn proposed a land swap in which state trust lands and mineral rights within three miles of the border would be exchanged for federally owned land in southern New Mexico.
All of the state-owned land and mineral rights near the border are in the rugged southwestern corner of the state, including the Bootheel.
Dunn’s proposal would mean an exchange of more than 32,000 acres of state land and mineral rights, a swap that Dunn said could defuse a politically charged debate over use of state lands along the border.
“In anticipation of the border wall, I am hoping to begin a discussion to take state trust lands out of the political process and focus on managing these lands for the trust beneficiaries,” Dunn wrote in his letter.
“I do not wish to be part of political fodder for any side of this issue,” he added.
Although Dunn did not specify what federally owned land he’d like to receive in return, he indicated his preference would be “desirable land assets” in Chaves, Lincoln and Otero counties that are currently under the control of the federal Bureau of Land Management.
If the Trump administration were to refuse the offer, it would have to pay the State Land Office a $3 million easement fee to access state trust land, said Kristin Haase, an assistant commissioner in Dunn’s office.
Much of the state-owned land in question is currently leased for animal grazing rights, according to the State Land Office. There’s little drilling happening in the state-owned subsurface mineral estates in the area.
Revenues generated from state trust land – from grazing leases, oil extraction and more – go into a permanent fund that helps fund New Mexico schools and universities.
Both in New Mexico and internationally, the border wall proposal has become a lightning rod for debate.
Critics blast the idea as impractical and expensive. The American Civil Liberties Union in Las Cruces recently called the plan “a 15th century solution to a nonexistent problem,” citing historically low levels of illegal immigration along the Mexican border.
And regional economic development officials have also expressed opposition to the plan, as New Mexico’s exports to Mexico have surged to $1.68 billion in 2015 from $800.7 million in 2013.
However, Trump has been undeterred by the criticism, and signed an executive order last week authorizing the Department of Homeland Security to begin work on building a border wall. In the order, the Republican president defined the wall as an “impassable physical barrier.”
He also vowed that Mexico will either pay or reimburse the United States for the cost of building the wall, but Mexican officials have rejected the suggestion.
New Mexico shares nearly 160 miles of border with Mexico, including some urban areas that are already fenced with 18-foot steel columns and rural stretches of low-vehicle barriers.
Journal staff writer Lauren Villagran contributed to this report.