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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

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

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