Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Land Commission Race Pits Rancher Against Environmentalist

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    This is the first in a series of stories on candidates for top state and federal offices in the Nov. 7 general election.
    When voters go to the polls in November to elect a state land commissioner, they'll choose between two men with fundamentally different visions of how to run the office.
    Incumbent Pat Lyons, a Republican rancher and friend to developers and oil and gas companies, is a staunch supporter of the state Land Office's constitutional mandate to maximize revenues for public schools and other beneficiaries.
    Jim Baca, an environmentalist Democrat and advocate of preserving special public lands, thinks its time to change the state constitution to allow the Land Office to set aside some trust lands, protecting them from development, while using others to make money.
    A former land commissioner himself, Baca wants to take another crack at his old job. Lyons is seeking a second, four-year term.
    The land commissioner oversees nine million acres of surface land and 13 million acres of mineral rights. The land and minerals are managed to generate money— $386 million last year— for several beneficiaries, including public schools, universities and children's hospitals.
    While they have differing perspectives on Land Office goals, Lyons and Baca both have their share of political experience.
    Lyons spent 10 years in the state Senate, and Baca is a former Albuquerque mayor, U.S. Bureau of Land Management director and state liquor control director, in addition to 1983-86 and 1991-93 terms as land commissioner.
'Connected to the land'
    Lyons spends the work week in Santa Fe and drives 160 miles home to spend weekends with his wife and three children on their 16,500-acre ranch in an isolated corner of eastern New Mexico. His grandfather bought the ranch during the Depression. Lyons was born in Clovis in neighboring Curry County.
    His boyish face lit up as he took visitors on a tour of the corrals, the fields where winter wheat is being planted and the grazing land.
    "We've been connected to the land all our life," he said. "We know how to take care of it. ... The local farmers and ranchers, they open up and talk to me. I'm one of them."
    Lyons argues that his experience and knowledge of rural New Mexico makes him a good land commissioner, and he considers other ranchers his biggest supporters. At a recent fundraiser in the tiny eastern town of Elida, for example, they ponied up $10,000 for his re-election campaign.
    "He's just been real fair with the farmers and ranchers," said Phil Wallin, who farms and ranches in Truth or Consequences and Moriarty. "He understands our problems."
    Wallin described Lyons as a straight shooter and said he "really works for the school system."
    Overall, most of Lyons' campaign money has come from ranchers and the real estate and oil and gas industries. He had more than $488,000 in his campaign chest in early July.
    A Lyons sign sits in front of oil giant Marbob Energy Corp. in Artesia. Raye Miller, secretary/treasurer for the company and chairman of the Land Trusts Advisory Board, said that what Lyons stands for "more closely resembles industry" than Baca's stand does.
    One example is the candidates' positions on drilling in southern New Mexico's Otero Mesa. Lyons has fought for expanded drilling on federal land— something he and others argue is needed for development of nearby state land to be economical. Baca wants more protections for the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands at Otero Mesa.
    Baca said he does not oppose oil and gas drilling.
    "There's a place for everything," he said. "There's plenty of places where you can do appropriate oil and gas development."
'Bring balance back'
    Baca counts environmentalists, "good government types" and planned-growth advocates among his supporters.
    While he received some hefty donations from fellow board members and staffers at The Wilderness Society, Baca reported a balance of only about $7,000 on his most recent campaign finance report in early July.
    Sandy Buffett, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, which has endorsed Baca, said she expects more money to flow into his campaign from her group and other environmentalists.
    "We're enthusiastic about Jim's plan to bring balance back to the Land Office," she said, citing his goals to diversify revenues and promote clean energy. "The environmental community is definitely rallying around Jim Baca."
    The Sierra Club's Rio Grande Chapter and Animal Protection Voters also endorsed Baca. APV campaigns manager Heather Greenhood called him "the clear candidate to defend wildlife on public lands."
    She noted that Baca kept federal predator killers off state land in his earlier term. One of Lyons' first acts in office was to rescind a ban on ranchers killing coyotes on state trust land.
    Meanwhile, Lyons notes that he put some state land off limits to new oil drilling in eastern New Mexico to protect rare lesser prairie chickens and helped reintroduce bighorn sheep on state land in the Little Hatchet Mountains.
    Both candidates want to boost renewable energy production on trust lands, and Baca would create a permanent division in the Land Office to be more aggressive about leasing.
    Lyons says he has already leased state land for wind, solar and biomass projects and intends to do more of it.
Hunters' interests
    On a warm Saturday morning in August, Baca walked up and down Maxwell Avenue in Springer, shaking hands and asking for votes before joining the Colfax County Fair parade.
    Springer resident and hunter Ed Olona smoothed the way with warm introductions. "He will support the sportsmen as well as the land enthusiasts of New Mexico," Olona said.
    Barber Barry Potter was impressed by Baca.
    "He seemed like a great guy and he's thinking along the same lines I am," he said, referring to protecting special public lands.
    There's one group Lyons considers himself a member of but can't seem to win over— sportsmen.
    Hunter access is a big issue in Colfax County, where a mix of state and private ranch land in the White Peak area has sparked conflicts between hunters and land owners over the years. Lyons tried to trade the state land in 2003 but was criticized by hunters.
    Some sportsmen say Lyons has also made other trades with ranchers that have limited access for hunting on state lands.
    "Pat Lyons is a sportsman's candidate— if you can afford to pay outfitters and guides," said Albuquerque sportsman Ellery Worthen. "He's not friendly to the hunter of modest means."
    Lyons— who considers himself "a big sportsman" and has covered the walls of his living room and home office with bear skins and mounts of trophy deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn— said he works to maintain hunter access.
    The National Rifle Association is endorsing him.
    Private land around White Peak is being subdivided and developed, he said. "We're losing wildlife habitat ... something needs to be done there."
    Baca, who has hunted a lot in the past but not in recent years, vowed no net loss of hunting land. He said he would stop private ranchers from closing roads that provide access to state trust land and would work with the Legislature to pass a law mandating regular status reports on access for hunting and fishing on state trust lands.
Open space debate
    Baca is pushing three constitutional amendments to allow more flexibility in how land is used while also creating more oversight of permanent changes in land status.
    They would allow state trust lands to be permanently protected from development as part of a new State Lands Conservation System; create a board to approve all trades, sales and additions to the conservation system; and allow the commissioner to give or sell land to schools and local governments below market value.
    "The mandate in the constitution that all state lands would be exploited is obsolete in this day and age," Baca said. "There's lots of economic value to protecting these lands."
    Lyons disagrees with Baca.
    "I think he's absolutely wrong," Lyons said. "We can't start giving away our land. ... That's just going to decimate our permanent fund and our ability to create revenue for education."
    Baca said putting some lands off-limits to development shouldn't hurt the trust because revenue from the major oil and gas fields would not be affected.
    Lyons said the Land Office is already protecting land as open space but is getting compensated for it.
    Land that is set aside will decrease revenues but also increase expenses because state employees will have to watch over land in the absence of a lessee, Lyons said.
Land revenues
    Lyons' hard line on maximizing profits has landed him in controversy. Residents of Ruidoso were angry he refused to protect Moon Mountain from development, and the University of New Mexico argued with him about the price of land for a Rio Rancho campus.
    Baca's proposed constitutional amendments would allow the land commissioner to permanently set aside land like Moon Mountain and to sell land to UNM at a cut rate.
    Lyons is proud to say he's generated $1.4 billion in revenue during his term.
    "A lot of it is due to increasing oil and gas prices, but I think a lot is due to our customer service, our ability to work with everybody," Lyons said.
    He has recorded increased revenues in other areas, such as general mining rentals and coal and land contract royalties.
    "Pat Lyons doesn't set the price of oil and gas, I don't care what anybody says," Baca said. "It's kind of dishonest to say he's made that money."
Dual personalities
    In addition to considering the candidates' positions on weighty issues, voters might also by swayed by their personalities.
    Lyons is considered friendly and open. Baca is known for speaking his mind.
    Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who served two terms with Lyons, called him a "sweet" man who says hello to people on the street.
    "Pat's pretty darn easy to work with," Ingle said.
    New Mexico American Federation of Teachers President Christine Trujillo cited two sides of Baca.
    "To be honest with you, he grates on my nerves because he's very strong-willed and opinionated," she said. "But you know what? He's sharp and he's ethical. ... He has no hidden agenda."
    Jim Baca
    PLACE OF RESIDENCE: Albuquerque
    AGE: 61
    EDUCATION: St. Pius X High School, Albuquerque; bachelor's degree, business administration, special broadcast journalism course, University of New Mexico; fellowship, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
    OCCUPATION: Retired as state natural resource trustee March 1, 2006.
    FAMILY: Wife, Bobbi; one son, one daughter.
    POLITICAL/GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCE: New Mexico state liquor control director, 1978-1981; state land commissioner, 1983-1986, 1991-1993; director, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Interior, 1993-1994; mayor, City of Albuquerque, 1997-2001; New Mexico state natural resource trustee, 2003-2006; New Mexico journalist; service on the boards of the National Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Wyss Foundation.
  • 1978-81: State liquor control director; pushed through major reforms of liquor laws.
  • 1983-87: First term as land commissioner; doubled grazing fees on state lands; pushed through an increase in royalties paid to the state by mining and oil and gas companies; opened state trust lands to recreation.
  • 1988: Spent nine months as general manager of the then-troubled Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District before being fired. Later received a $30,000 settlement in a wrongful dismissal suit.
  • 1991: Second term as land commissioner; banned the federal coyote killing agency from state trust lands.
  • 1993: Chosen by President Clinton to head the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; resigned 10 months later after trying to reform the federal grazing program.
  • 1997-2001: Mayor of Albuquerque; spearheaded Downtown revitalization; campaigned for a ban on concealed carry weapons; opposed the Paseo del Norte extension through Petroglyph National Monument; pushed through a quarter-cent tax for road improvements and helped resuscitate minor league baseball in Albuquerque; mayor and the city lost nearly $4 million lawsuit for violating free speech and association rights of fired Convention Center director; had an often-acrimonious relationship with the city council.
  • 2003-2005: State natural resources trustee.
        Pat Lyons
        POLITICAL PARTY: Republican
        PLACE OF RESIDENCE: Cuervo
        AGE: 53
        EDUCATION: Clovis High School, 1972; bachelor's degree, agricultural economics, New Mexico State University, 1975; master's degree, agricultural economics, Colorado State University, 1977.
        OCCUPATION: Rancher.
        FAMILY: Wife, Sandy; two daughters, one son.
        POLITICAL/GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCE: New Mexico state senator, 1993-2002; state commissioner of public Lands, 2003-present.
  • 1992-2002: State senator from Cuervo; elected chairman of the Senate Republican caucus in 2000; sponsored bill to buy Eagle Nest Lake; opposed the ban on drive-up liquor windows because it would make it difficult for "old and disabled people who have a hard time getting around"; helped ensure the federal predator killing agency Wildlife Services got a state appropriation by removing a reference to it from the budget to protect it from veto; opposed a bill to give more protection to state-designated threatened species; sponsored legislation to put $100 million from the general fund into a water projects trust fund.
  • 2003-present: State land commissioner; opened piñon-juniper forests to free public thinning; supported the controversial Salt River Project coal mine that Zuni Pueblo worried would hurt a sacred lake; launched effort to clean up trash on trust lands; pushed for cleanup of oil well pad spills; brought in $1.4 billion for schools, much of it from oil and gas leases on state trust land.