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Wild Horses, Fishing and Hunting

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          The theme to today's column is the great outdoors.
        First, I'll tell you about a potential private buyer for the Ortiz Mountain Ranch should Gov. Bill Richardson's plan to turn the ranch into a state sanctuary for wild horses fall through.
        Then it's a Christmas wish from the hook and bullet crowd: Take the politics out of appointments to the state Game Commission.
        Albuquerque businessman Steve Chavez says he is in line to buy the Ortiz Mountain Ranch if the state doesn't. "I'm just in a holding pattern," he says.
        Chavez says he would be willing to put wild horses on the ranch if he ended up with the 12,000-acre property.
        Richardson disclosed in September that he wants to use $2.9 million in federal stimulus money to buy the ranch, about 25 miles south of Santa Fe, and add it to Cerrillos Hills State Park.
        However, the acquisition needs approval of the state Board of Finance, and a vote by the board has been postponed three times.
        The Board of Finance is now scheduled to meet only one other time — on Dec. 21 — before Richardson leaves office. The governor, who chairs the board, is scheduled to return from North Korea the day before the meeting.
        Gov.-elect Susana Martinez, who takes office New Year's Day, opposes the ranch purchase, calling it inexcusable, given the tough economic times. Another opponent is Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor, who sits on the Board of Finance.
        About 11,400 acres of the Ortiz Mountain Ranch are owned by the Nature Conservancy, and development is restricted on those acres. The ranch house and 640 surrounding acres are owned by heirs of the late Ed and Virginia Ball.
        Camping, hiking and other recreational opportunities would be offered on the property if it were placed under state ownership.
        Chavez says he is interested in buying the ranch partly because his grandfather and his grandfather's brother once oversaw the cattle and sheep operations on the property.
        He says he would extend development restrictions to the ranch house and its 640 acres.
        Terry Sullivan, state director of the Nature Conservancy, says the group has been in discussions with Chavez.
        Sullivan says the goal of the group is to have the ranch managed for conservation, either publicly or privately.
        "If it works out with the state, great, but we want to have a Plan B or Plan C," he says.
        If the Board of Finance approves the ranch purchase Dec. 21, the state will have only a few working days to close the deal before Martinez takes office. While your picture of government may be those slow-moving lines at MVD, it can act very quickly when it wants to.
        Chavez is president and owner of Integrated Control Systems, which designs environmental-control and other building-management systems.
        Most notably, Integrated Control Systems played a role in the scandal over construction of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse.
        The company was awarded a $4.2 million, no-bid contract in 2003 for the video arraignment system at the courthouse. Change orders pushed the cost to more than $7.5 million.
        One of those convicted in the scandal said Integrated Control Systems served as a conduit for inflated construction invoices, but neither the company nor any of its employees was indicted in the case. Chavez has repeatedly declined to comment about the firm's role in the scandal.
        Chavez has served on the board of directors of microlender Accion New Mexico, and Integrated Control Systems also has been active in the nonprofit community.
        The company, formed in the mid-1990s, has been cited as one of the fastest-growing Hispanic-owned companies in the nation.
        Plea for change
        The New Mexico Wildlife Federation, an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, says politics are hurting the state Game Commission and its oversight of the Game and Fish Department.
        The governor appoints the seven members of the commission, and commission slots are plum appointments often reserved for those closest to the governor.
        The New Mexico Wildlife Federation says the Game Commission and the department's leadership are out of touch with the public, including most sportsmen.
        "The commission's job is to direct the department through well-considered policies that represent the citizens of New Mexico," the federation says in a prepared statement. "But current and past commissioners have largely abdicated that responsibility, because many commissioners don't seem to have the average resident's best interest at heart.
        "We believe the commission's apparent indifference stems from a history of pay-to-play appointments that have stocked the board with well-connected (political) donors rather than everyday hunters and anglers."
        The federation says it presented a report to the transition team of Gov.-elect Martinez on the history of appointees to the Game Commission and on how to restore public trust in the commission.
        Martinez "will have a clear choice — to continue using the state Game Commission as a political plum or to set a new direction," the report says.
        Here's my prediction: She'll do the former while saying she's doing the latter. Just a guess.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.

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