'Keep Your Hands Off'

Rally calls for state legislature to protect public lands

Camo, orange and puffy down jackets joined forces in the Roundhouse on Thursday afternoon as a cross section of more than a hundred New Mexicans came together to make a lot of noise in favor of public lands. Gathering on the western steps of the capitol, they toted signs declaring "Keep your hands off my public lands," "Public lands are our legacy" and "I can't fill my freezer with fracking fluid" before a string of speakers representing Native communities, business owners, lawmakers and invested citizens spoke about the ongoing threats to public lands.

Their message: Legislators need to support federal lands, the management of which keeps these areas open to the public, or expect to seem themselves voted out of office in November. Without those protections, the open spaces that define the state, draw tourists to it and support the region's cultural legacies will be lost.

"Public, private, federal, state are all new words to us. We see them as our ancestral domain, dotted with sacred sites that provide us lessons," said Tony Dorame, a science teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School. He opened his comments to the rally in the Tewa language. "We're culturally obligated to be good stewards of these lands. … As Native people, when we are on the landscape, we are in our church."

But many significant sites are on lands where access is no longer permitted, and Native people no longer have a voice in how those lands are managed, so they rely on public lands to preserve open access and their ability to have some say in how those lands are run.

New Mexico is one of several states that has seen boilerplate legislation circulating the state house from the American Legislative Exchange Council; it attempts to transfer ownership of federal lands to the state. Last year, a bill was introduced asking to study the feasibility of a public lands sale, and in 2013, New Mexico State Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-Alamagordo) and State Sen. Richard Martinez (D-Española) introduced legislation calling for the federal government to turn over 23 million acres of public land to the state.

Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity heralded the bill as "an exciting change," Think Progress reported, but then Land Commissioner Ray Powell opposed the bill. Similar legislation has not yet been introduced this year, but the possibility looms, and these lands are still at risk, rally organizers argued.

The Center for American Progress characterizes these bills as “disastrous,” writing in 2013, “Rather than being managed for the benefit and use of the American public, these lands will instead be managed in whatever way each state wants to use them—which generally means maximizing private profits through mining, drilling, and other resource extraction.”

Americans for Prosperity considers moves like Obama using the Antiquities Act to designate the Organ Mountains a national monument as federal "land grabs" that "prove economically disastrous for the state and local economies within those regions." They cite jobs lost when those lands are protected from the extractive industries that would mine, log and drill them.

The "century-old law" (compared to our two-and-a-half century-old Constitution?) was, in fact, created to protect Native American artifacts and ruins, among other historically significant landmarks, and first used by President Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican) to protect wild lands—in that particular case, the land targeted was the Grand Canyon.

This year, the land commissioner increased the cost to use state trust lands five-fold, a move sportsmen and land conservationists protested. Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn reportedly supports the movement to sell off public lands. A statement on the New Mexico State Land Office website declares, "State trust lands are often misunderstood in terms of both their character and their management. They are not public lands, but are instead the subject of a public trust created to support the education of New Mexico's children."

Put the two together, rally speakers argued, and you can see the future for the 26 million acres of public lands in New Mexico: They'll be mined, drilled and logged, and public access limited in the name of permitting these corporate actions.

In case there's doubt in their priorities, a miniature oil derrick bobbing away in front of the State Land Office celebrates the first oil well in New Mexico.

But those who spoke in favor of public lands Thursday afternoon argued for different uses for the land, like hunting, fishing, gathering firewood or medicinal herbs, camping and hiking. Nearly 90 percent of those who hunt and fish in New Mexico use public lands to do so—not the privately owned fishing and hunting ranches that charge for access.

In Oregon, those occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge argue their effort is to wrest local control from the federal government, but Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said what he saw in a recent visit there is not a community united in opposition to outside rule, but one held captive by radical extremists who have deprived the rest of the public of access to the land.

"I saw a whole town that was paralyzed by Taliban-style terrorists," VeneKlasen said. "I've looked into the eye of the beast in Oregon, and I want you all to be very concerned about this. It's time for a zero-tolerance policy."

"If public lands are shut down and closed off, there won't be places for me to take my clients, family and friends," said Ivan Valdez, owner of The Reel Life, a fly fishing shop and guide service in Santa Fe. "I want to be able to pass on the hunting and fishing spots I've learned to my son."

The governor never did show her face for the rally, despite their repeated efforts to make enough noise to draw her out. One attendee shouted a suggestion to get  her attention: Buy her a pizza. But several state lawmakers did join the rally— Reps. Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) and Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) and Sen. Bill Soules (D-Las Cruces), who had tried that morning to read legislation that would memorialize public lands, promising their protection, but saw that bill instead referred to the conservation committee's Tuesday meeting. Soules cited the $458 million in tax revenue, $6.1 billion in consumer spending and 680,000 jobs—more than the oil and gas industry—as reason to protect these lands for the well-being of the people and the economy, and read the state constitution, which clearly defers to Congress for the dispensation of federal lands.

Utah state legislators did actually pass a bill demanding the federal government hand over control of federal lands in the state. The federal government largely ignored the bill, and the state legislature's own lawyers said any attempt to enforce the law would "have a high probability of being declared unconstitutional" because it "would interfere with Congress' power to dispose of public lands."

You can tell a lot about a legislator based on their stance on public lands, argued Guy Dicharry, with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who will have their ear when they're in office. If they don't support public lands, he says, it's probably not you they'll be listening to.

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