In the far northeast corner of New Mexico, there’s a rugged sanctuary where eagles wing silently overhead and elk roam unmolested through forests of pine and juniper—at least until hunting season begins. Come autumn, this place roars to life with all-terrain vehicles and gunfire as hunters collect on this season’s elk licenses.

This is the now-infamous White Peak, a

patchwork

of state and private lands that has become a focal point for a series of political and ideological conflicts.

The brouhaha began last summer when New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Patrick Lyons proposed to exchange state trust land for private ranch holdings. Just a few days before the first swap was set to close, on Nov. 20, a firestorm of criticism erupted. Jeremy Vesbach, the executive director of the hunters’ conservation group New Mexico Wildlife Federation, calls it a “sweetheart deal.” In a public statement, Gov. Bill Richardson condemned the swaps as “a behind-the-scenes deal with virtually no public input.” Hunters rallied and decried the loss of land they had accessed for decades. Others speculated the deal would lead to housing developments, and oil and gas drilling on one of the state’s most scenic corners.

Lyons and supporters of the deal say the swap will ease mounting tensions between hunters and ranchers. More pointedly, Lyons has reiterated the potential financial gains the cash-strapped state could realize under the deal.

These competing narratives in the White Peak controversy reveal larger tensions in New Mexico’s fraught oversight of its land and the concomitant conflicts between conservation and generating revenue.

Add politics to the mix: It’s an election year, and the open seat for land commissioner (Lyons is term-limited) has drawn a crowded field for the June 1 primary, which will lead to a partisan race come November.

The candidates—like so many others in the White Peak debate—see the outcome of the White Peak deal as one that could redefine not just the State Land Office but also the strategy behind public lands in New Mexico for years to come.

John Olivas, a hunting and wilderness guide from Mora and the northern director for the environmental group New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, says the White Peak crisis has completely altered the political involvement and convictions of the small communities of northern New Mexico.

“I don’t know that anybody ever really took notice of the State Land Office,” Olivas says. “They knew there was a state agency out there, but the locals didn’t know who they were.” The proposed swap and potential loss of access to White Peak enraged and galvanized people in the area. Olivas, a Democratic candidate for Mora County commissioner, fully expects his community to take an active interest in the upcoming race for Lyons’ successor.

“The next state land commissioner has to strongly support the opposition of [White] Peak,” Olivas says. “That’s pretty evident.”

But in the meantime, White Peak’s future rests in the hands of the state Supreme Court—at least the part that impacts rancher David Stanley.

In White Peak, March days dawn clear and brisk. Stanley, rangy and blue-eyed, revs up his two-seater ATV and loads on a pile of maps and snacks for a tour through the craggy ridges and stream-filled valleys of White Peak, where Stanley’s family has owned a ranch for 30-some years.

“My father bought the property from somebody who didn’t divulge the problems of trespass,” Stanley says. “First hunting season came, and we just couldn’t believe it.”

In the late 1990s, Stanley bought this ranch from his father, a Texas oilman who by that point had already been working for years to trade some of their private holdings for nearby state trust land.

The reason, Stanley says, is the ranch isn’t one continuous property but, rather, a loose collection of small parcels intermingled with state trust lands. When elk season comes, he says, people licensed to hunt on state trust land use Stanley’s property to get there, sometimes cutting fences, stealing signs and even poaching elk from his property. When he tried to close the roads, he says, the problems just got worse.

Lyons’ plan for White Peak swaps 14,634 acres of state trust land (close to 3,700 acres that are not actually located in White Peak) for 9,650 acres of private holdings on four ranches in White Peak.

The ultimate goal is a “quality game unit”—a tourist attraction resembling the Valle Vidal. Such consolidated, well-managed state trust lands, Lyons says, will ultimately bring in more revenue to the Land Office—and, consequently, to public schools around the state.

Stanley’s exchange is the first and largest of the proposed swaps, and would trade 7,205 acres of state trust land for 3,330 acres of the Stanley Ranch. Despite the disparity in acreage, Lyons paints the deal as a boon to the state trust: An outside appraiser (contracted by the State Land Office and paid for by the private ranchers) values Stanley’s total offering at $6.41 million—slightly more than the state’s $6.36 million parcel.

By trading the portions of his land that are surrounded by state land, Stanley reasons, he won’t have to deal with the trespass and vandalism. He can close off the old logging roads that have become ATV thoroughfares and let his land return to the pristine place with which he first fell in love.

Generations of land commissioners expressed interest in an exchange with the Stanley Ranch, but no deal ever went through. Stanley blames the hunters.

“They don’t want the trade,” Stanley says. “They basically get to drive and hunt and use all these private lands [without permission]—and that’s what they want to do.”

Ed Olona, New Mexico Wildlife Federation’s board president, doesn’t dispute the first part of Stanley’s statement. He readily takes credit for derailing Lyons’ past attempts to exchange White Peak for the Dawson Ranch in 2003 and for parts of the CS Ranch in 2004.

“Had the sportsmen been involved in this [current] situation, it would not have gone as far as it did,” Olona tells SFR.

But Olona and others say Stanley’s allegations of hunters’ bad behavior are exaggerated, at best.

“The sportsmen are not making roads and trails [with ATVs],” Olona says. “They’re not littering and stuff like this. Why can’t the landowner fence his area properly? That would solve the problem.”

Lief Ahlm, the northeast area operations chief at the Department of Game and Fish field office in White Peak, tells SFR the area “is about the same as anywhere else” in terms of trespass.

But Stanley isn’t the only landowner who claims a history of problems with the hunters.

“We have become jaded enough that we do not notify the Game [and Fish] Department,” Mike Hobbs, the general manager of the Express UU Bar Ranch, another property involved in Lyons’ White Peak exchange, says. “By the time they get here, the perpetrators are gone. They know the Game [and Fish] Department is not going to cite them for trespass—all they have to do is rip down the ‘no trespassing’ sign.”

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The conflict between ranchers and hunters has taken center stage in the White Peak controversy—Lyons says it is one of the primary reasons for the trade.

But both hunting and grazing are small potatoes when it comes to generating revenue for the state trust.

For example, before relinquishing some of his grazing leases in the trade, Stanley had leases on more than 21,000 acres from the State Land Office. Stanley currently pays approximately $6,000 annually for the entire tract—roughly 30 cents an acre.

The Department of Game and Fish, according to its spokesman Dan Williams, pays the State Land Office a flat fee of $200,000 a year for an easement that allows it to distribute public hunting licenses on all 9 million acres of state trust land. That’s just over 2 cents an acre (though not every acre of state trust land has viable hunting resources).

Compare that to revenues from oil production, which average approximately $166 per acre of state trust land. Under Lyons, revenues from state trust lands—his office oversees 9 million acres of state trust land and 13 million acres of mineral rights—have risen steadily, almost doubling during his eight years in office, and have paid out $2.7 billion in total to schools, hospitals and universities. Of that revenue, approximately 95 percent comes from oil and gas production. Royalties, bonuses and income from lease sales for oil production also are significant sources of revenue for the state—and almost 40 percent of that production happens on state trust lands.

“Obviously, they’re the most important asset the state trust fund has,”

Matt Rush

, a Republican candidate for land commissioner who swept his party’s pre-primary convention with almost 65 percent of the vote, says. But Rush, like the other candidates in the race, recognizes the danger of a uniform investment portfolio.

“We must look at ways to diversify that,” Rush tells SFR. “We can’t have all our eggs in one basket.”

Rush’s opponent, Republican

Bob Cornelius

, has made “alternative” energy the linchpin of his campaign, saying he’s interested in exploring “natural gas and oil as well as solar, wind, nuclear power, coal and uranium.”

That, he says, is simple self-preservation: The State Land Office won’t have much to do and its 22 beneficiaries will be out of luck once all the oil and gas in its 13 million acres of trust lands has been extracted.

One of Lyons’ most vocal detractors is

Ray Powell

, a former land commissioner (1993-2002) and a Democratic candidate in the June 1 primary election, who has the backing of groups like Conservation Voters of New Mexico and the Sierra Club. According to Powell, Lyons’ model of fiscal responsibility isn’t enough.

“I’m really upset at the way the Land Office has been run,” Powell tells SFR. “I think it’s a disaster.” Powell’s election platform—which echoes his failed candidacy in the primary election for this office four years ago—is rooted in the adage that the office needs to protect public lands and diversify its sources of income.

“The trust is in perpetuity; it’s forever,” Powell says. “So you [try] to make that revenue stream as stable and as large as you can for perpetuity. Doing projects that make you some money on the short term but cost you opportunities on the long term don’t make any sense.”

White Peak, he says, is a classic example.

If the trade goes through, Powell says, “You may make a couple thousand dollars more a year, but what have you cost in terms of economic return to the entire community?”

(Lyons counters that his administration “did more conservation than” Powell “ever did.” He, too, cites White Peak. “Look at all the roads, the ruts, the trespass. If [Powell] is such a good conservationist, why did he advocate to leave it as is? All conservation groups ought to be for this!”)

Powell’s two opponents in the primary, Santa Fe County Commissioner

Harry Montoya

and Public Regulation Commissioner

Sandy Jones

, largely echo his call for change—each with his own idea of how to improve the State Land Office.

“We really need to look at renewable energies,” Montoya says, indicating he’d develop wind, solar and hydrogen through partnerships with private firms already producing renewables. He’s also a vehement opponent of the White Peak swap, both because “things are fine the way they are” and because part of the trade involves a 3,630-acre section of Arroyo Seco. The area falls within Montoya’s county commission district, yet he says Lyons kept him in the dark about the trade.

Jones, too, mostly opposes the trade—mainly because he doesn’t see enough justification for it.

“If I’m land commissioner, there’s going to be a much more stringent process for land swaps,” Jones tells SFR.

Since trades between the state trust and private landowners transfer surface but not mineral rights, Jones says they make the revenue configuration more confusing. “It makes it more difficult to go get those minerals,” Jones says. That view is typical of his revenue-oriented approach to the office. Rather than looking to renewable energy, Jones wants to increase the trust fund by stimulating oil and gas production for a limited time period.

But while Lyons has increased the revenue his office generates over his two terms, he also has come under fire for what many conservationists consider inappropriate coziness with oil and gas interests. It’s a suspicion that has crept into the furor over White Peak—as well as the upcoming election.

Vesbach compares White Peak to the Valle Vidal area of the Carson National Forest, which was under threat of drilling until it received congressional protection in 2006.

“It’s a place similar to Valle Vidal; it’s an issue similar to Valle Vidal,” Vesbach says, “and if the trades were completed, it would make the area harder to protect.”

Potential oil and gas development is of grave concern to Mora residents, as well as the Sierra Club, according to Norma McCallan, the vice-chair of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.

“Our concerns are not with the private ranch owners,” McCallan says. “We’re concerned because the [exchange] seems to have been done with a lack of transparency and openness. The state land commissioner has an enormous amount of power.”

In February, Lyons told the New Mexico Game Commission that he had denied a request to lease 30,000 acres of state trust land in White Peak for oil and gas development because “we want to save that area as a pristine area.”

Lyons has publicly committed not to open White Peak to drilling while he’s land commissioner—if all four trades go through.

“We want to maintain it as a quality area,” Lyons tells SFR. But, he adds, “If the exchange is killed by the attorney general and if the private guys start leasing all their lands that are checker-boarded within us, then we have to step back and look at that.”

Chances are, though, Lyons won’t be the person overseeing the ultimate fate of White Peak.

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One month after the first of White Peak’s scheduled exchanges was set to close, Nov. 24, the State Land Office received a letter from state Attorney General Gary King stating that his office had completed an independent review of the White Peak land appraisals and found “several significant defects.”

The Land Office fired back within a week, vaunting its appraiser’s credentials (John Widdoss, the South Dakota appraiser contracted by the Land Office, was voted Appraisal Professional of the Year in 2009 by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers) and requesting, under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act, to see the review.

King tells SFR “there is no document to deliver because what [Lyons] asked for just doesn’t physically exist right now.” As to whether such a review is still pending or was delivered verbally, King says, “It was just a verbal thing.”

On Feb. 1, King filed a petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court to stop the White Peak land exchanges.

In it, he accuses Lyons of conducting public auctions that were “for all practical purposes, shams.”

“The Land Commissioner made a predetermination to exchange specific and substantial portions of State Trust Land with two specific private parties,” the petition reads—a charge that amounts to conspiring with ranchers to the detriment of the state trust.

“A public auction that is circumscribed in such a way that there is only one possible bidder isn’t really a public auction,” King tells SFR.

In March, Lyons and King’s lawyers went before the high court to plead their cases, which rest in some large part upon interpretation of whether the Enabling Act—the 1910 federal act that expanded state trust lands and beneficiaries—allows a state land commissioner to conduct land exchanges.

After the hearing, the court deliberated for a half hour before instructing each party to submit supplemental briefs that further defined the land commissioner’s statutory authority. As of press time, the court had not issued a ruling.

Democrats clearly see White Peak as an opportunity to regain the State Land Office. Lyons is the only Republican who holds a statewide office, and all three Democrats running in the primary—Powell, Montoya and Jones—oppose the deal. The Republican candidates also criticize certain aspects of how it was handled.

Though unabashedly bitter about the backlash,

Lyons

also seems resigned when it comes to White Peak’s future“I just have eight months left in office,” he says. “We’ll do whatever the courts say to do,” he says. “We’re stopping there. We gave it our best shot to increase the value of the trust.

In the meantime, after all, he has his own political future to deal with as a candidate for the Public Regulation Commission.

After forcing his ATV up an impossibly rugged, precipitous road—the one that crosses through his land to White Peak’s public areas—David Stanley unrolls a large map of the trade on the seat of his ATV. He points out a tract near the northern part of the exchange, then indicates a rocky cliff to the right.

“That’s this,” he explains—a parcel he’ll get from the state if the exchange goes through.

Stanley takes issue with the assertion that the land he’s offering the state is “just pastureland near a highway,” as New Mexico Wildlife Federation’s Jeremy Vesbach put it last fall.

His land, Stanley says, “was cherry-picked by the homesteaders, so it’s got meadow; it’s got access; it’s got some kind of water source—it’s beautiful land. It’s perfect.”

He hops nimbly back into the ATV and splashes through cavernous mud puddles (even ATVs get stuck here) to another spot.

“This,” he says, sweeping an arm across the unspoiled area before him, “is what I’m giving them.”

Time will tell.

SFR