By Ray Powell
A resident new to Santa Fe recently asked me what is special about the place called White Peak in northern New Mexico.
White Peak represents a unique and special area of state trust land that is rich in wildlife and natural beauty. It is unmatched in terms of hunting. It’s accessible to all and has been used for generations by traditional communities in the north.
White Peak has also played an important role generating revenues for our public schools, universities and hospitals. And yet now, our current land commissioner would prefer to see these public lands traded to private interests.
Unfortunately, the State Land Office’s proposed land exchange around White Peak represents a case study of what not to do when one is responsible for our public lands.
This trade completely excluded public participation and was done during the holiday season when most people were spending time with loved ones. Stakeholders like hunters and local communities were never consulted, and elected officials were briefed the day the bid closed. The appraisals seem dubious at best and have been severely criticized by the Attorney General’s Office and others.
This exchange, as currently designed, would put a “No Trespass” sign on some of the most beautiful, productive and culturally important land in our state.
Local families and others statewide know the attraction of White Peak and have made regular pilgrimages there for generations. I have had the privilege to talk with community elders who have visited and hunted at White Peak their entire lives, but now worry that their grandchildren won’t experience and know the area. These elders have reinforced my understanding of the importance of communal lands in the northern New Mexico Hispanic and Native American traditions, and of the rich history of the area that includes the Camino Real and the Santa Fe Trail.
While hard to imagine, states such as Texas do not have public lands. Only the very wealthy in Texas can afford the luxury of paying private land owners to access their land. The last thing New Mexico should do is close the door to our public lands. We don’t want to become a state in which only the rich can access and enjoy special places like White Peak.
This land exchange not only limits public access to these culturally rich areas and to some of the most beautiful and productive wildlife habitat in the state, but also is of very questionable value to the beneficiaries of the trust: New Mexico’s public schools, universities and hospitals. Trading away this important land, along with high-value commercial properties in Albuquerque and near Santa Fe—for grazing land—makes little sense, particularly during a serious economic downturn when land values are depressed.
White Peak represents an important economic resource for the entire northern New Mexico region. Visiting sportsmen spend their dollars on food, fuel and lodging—benefiting the local economies.
During my 1993-2002 tenure as land commissioner, I was repeatedly asked to sell or trade this land. I knew it was important to take the time to visit with all of the parties involved. I worked hard to develop collaborative relationships between the ranchers who leased trust land, the adjoining land owners and communities, and licensed sportsmen.
In most cases, we were able to develop strong and positive cooperation between the various parties. This is an ongoing process that only works when the Land Office takes the lead and steps in when there are difficulties. If this leadership is lacking, then there is little chance of an equitable and fair outcome.
The land exchange should be reversed before it does irreparable damage to the reputation and underlying mission of the New Mexico State Land Office, the health of local adjoining communities, and to those private citizens who celebrate the opportunity to use this special land to recreate, hunt, fish, bird watch and spend valuable time with their families.
For those citizens who are angry and frustrated with the lack of transparency and public input, I strongly suggest they call Commissioner of Public Lands Patrick Lyons.
We must make sure that this important land remains public land and accessible to all of our New Mexico families.
Veterinarian Ray Powell is a Democratic candidate for the position of state land commissioner.