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Disturbing the Pieces

Is New Mexico doing all it can to protect its ancient history?

February 25, 2009, 12:00 am

Former State Land Office Commissioner Jim Baca says the shortcomings with archaeological resources in the State Land Office reflect larger philosophical questions.

“The problem is the State Land Office is still operating in the 1950s, and everything has gone backwards now for the last six or seven years with this guy that’s in office,” he says, referring to Land Commissioner Lyons. “He’s really returned it to the ’50s, with state lands being a grab bag for industry. And I’m being really serious about that. Whether it’s the real estate industry, the oil and gas industry, the mining industry—they’ve really regressed in the way they’re planning on state lands, and that includes archeological sites, fish and wildlife, groundwater protections—it’s just awful.”

Aside from the political and ideological disagreements Baca may have with Republican Lyons—who defeated Baca, a Democrat, during the 2006 election—the system is indeed antiquated.

“The way the constitution [defines it], the State Land Office exists to make money for the permanent fund for schools,” Baca says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is almost 2010, and we’re operating with a constitution that didn’t take into consideration environmental issues, archaeological resources and other sorts of things that you should consider. It’s not just about making money. In the past it may have worked for us, but now we know better, OK?”

Amendments to the state’s constitution are necessary for reform, Baca says. “We need to change the constitution so that conservation is [considered] a beneficial use on state land—you don’t have to make money from every square acre of land. Some land should be preserved and not used at all,” he says. “But besides making conservation a real and practical use on state trust lands, we also need to have a land board put over the land commissioner.”

An oversight board, Baca says, wouldn’t interfere in day-to-day operations such as oil and gas leasing or grazing permits, but would have veto power over permanent land sales or trades—such as those occurring with regularity along the outskirts of Las Cruces.

Lyons, however, denies sites are being destroyed. “Our laws are a lot more stringent than the federal laws so, as a result of that, nothing gets done in the state [and] we lose a lot of money for education,” he says.

When asked if lessees are expected to conduct archaeological surveys before breaking ground on state trust lands, he answers that most companies rely upon their own staff. “Well, let’s say you’re ConocoPhillips, which is our largest producer: They look at every site before they drill. They send their guys in-house that [are] trained, and they go out and look [at the sites],” he says. “Now, that may not meet [the Historic Preservation Division’s] stringent standards—where they have to have hired somebody that’s been certified by their arch union or whatever it’s called—but they do every site. And if they find something, they flag it; they let people know.”

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