Feds must give local land control back to N.M.

This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on 6/24/13 and in several other papers state-wide.

Washington can’t seem to manage much of anything these days. Even before the myriad scandals started to take their toll on the Obama Administration, the government’s inability to manage money and resources was clear to even the most passive observer.

Notable among recent policy failures has been Washington’s inability to find even the smallest reductions in a $3.8 trillion budget – a budget which more than doubled in size in just over 10 years. This failure led directly to the hated “sequester” which, while not actually cutting year-over-year spending, did slow Washington’s growth somewhat.

By and large, Americans have gone on with their lives giving little thought to the over-hyped sequester. However, in an effort to inflict some pain on state governments, the Obama Administration saw fit to cancel royalty payments to the various Western states earlier this year. Royalties are the fees paid by companies that engage in certain activities on publicly-owned land. A vast majority of this money in New Mexico and around the West is derived from the various extractive industries.

For New Mexico, the loss amounts to $26 million this year. $109 million in total was cut from the budgets of the several Western states (New Mexico had the second-largest cut to Wyoming). Sen. Tom Udall and a bi-partisan group of Western senators recently penned a letter to the Obama Administration urging that such cuts not be made again next year.

While I appreciate efforts to stop future cuts by our delegation, this is not a discussion that should even be taking place. These lands are part of the respective states. They are supposed to be managed by the federal government on behalf of the states, but the funds are rightfully ours. Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t play by the rules.

If Washington did obey its own rules, many of these lands – excluding National Parks and Tribal lands – would have been transferred to the various Western states decades ago. After all, this was the pattern set up at the founding of our nation. Dating back to 1780, the Continental Congress designed a process by which the national government would “dispose of” lands under its control for the benefit of the nation. That process held true for two centuries, but was not allowed to work when it came to Western states like New Mexico which remains more than 40 percent federally-owned.

Whether federal or state government owns land may appear trivial at first blush, but we already have seen that federal budgetary mismanagement has resulted in the withholding of funds meant to support the activities of New Mexico government. And, of course we have well-documented problems with federal management of lands, including the lack of willingness to extract dead and dying trees, thus creating a “tinderbox” in New Mexico’s mountainous regions that have regularly caught fire in recent years.

Lastly, there is the basic reality that government’s functions are best managed locally. Washington instead enforces “one-size-fits-all” management policies that don’t work well for anyone.

The individual states, unlike Washington, have both the incentive and the local knowledge to manage local lands. They can often do so more effectively, without jumping through the hoops of Washington’s bureaucracy. The “rights of way” used by utilities on federal lands are but one recent example. The fact that these areas are too narrow and allowed falling power lines to start several of the fires burning in New Mexico has generated consternation from our Congressional delegation, but any federal action to expand or alter these “rights of way” is likely years away.

The good news is that New Mexico policymakers have seen the problem and are in the midst of working on solutions. HB 292, the Transfer of Public Lands Bill, was introduced on a bi-partisan basis by Reps. Yvette Herrell and Richard Martinez during the 2013 legislative session. Although it failed to pass, it began the discussion about who is best able to manage New Mexico’s public lands. Utah and four other states have already passed similar legislation.

Western states must act to put pressure on Washington to do the right thing by recognizing that local control of resources is not only sensible, but follows historical precedent. Local control was our birthright. It is time for Washington to restore local control of New Mexico’s lands.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility