New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell, a bolo-tie-wearing veterinarian with a friendly, deliberate demeanor, previously held office from 1993-2002 (hence the retro file photo!) and was reelected in 2010. SFR met with Powell recently to discuss how the state’s public trust lands are being used—and what that means for Santa Fe.
First, the basics: The State Land Office administers 9 million acres of surface and 13 million in subsurface (ie, mineral) estate. Although these state trust lands are public, each acre is considered a revenue source for a particular beneficiary. The Land Office decides how to generate revenue from the land, and the money goes into a trust that benefits public schools, hospitals and the like.
As commissioner, Powell has a variety of options for maximizing state revenue from trust lands: He can sell the surface rights but keep the mineral rights; he can lease the land to ranchers, oil companies, solar power developers, etc.; or he can trade state trust lands for private lands, as long as they’re of equal value. But Powell also must balance his duty to make money with ensuring trust lands are managed sustainably.
“We’re trying to leverage these resources so [they] earn more money for schoolkids, but the secondary and tertiary benefits are harder to quantify,” Powell says. In other words, Powell might be able to bring in the most money for public schools by selling off state trust lands—but only temporarily.
“Once this [land] is gone, it’s gone,” he says. “It can really slide away very quickly.”
Here’s the kicker: “The land commissioner can sell the land, lease the land or trade the land without anybody else’s approval,” Powell says. “That’s a lot of autonomy.”
Trust lands surround Santa Fe. To the northwest, it’s mostly mineral estate; to the south, the Land Office manages surface lands near La Cienega and Eldorado. There, Powell sees potential for development. He says some local businesses have already expressed interest in building a business park near the old state penitentiary. (He wouldn’t name the companies.) Although he has no obligation to do so, Powell says he’s planning to hold public meetings in Santa Fe this fall to solicit residents’ views on a potential lease.
On a personal level, Powell waxes enthusiastic about New Mexico’s potential for leasing state trust land to renewable energy companies, as exemplified by Albuquerque’s Mesa del Sol commercial-residential development.
“We literally could be leading the world in energy development,” Powell says. “I’m just praying we don’t sleep through this opportunity.”
To find out more about, visit nmstatelands.org or contact Powell’s office at 827-5760.