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Trust Issues

Two sides have locked horns over white peak—which land commissioner candidate can sort out the tangle?

May 5, 2010, 12:00 am

 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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