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(First of a series)
At the May 23 meeting of the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Director Jim Lane asked for feedback on his opposition to legislation that would place the Valles Caldera National Preserve under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service when the enacting legislation expires.
Senate Bill 285 was introduced by senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. Lane told the commission that Sen. Udall’s office had contacted him on Tuesday and asked him to issue a statement about the position of the department, the commission and Gov. Susana Martinez.
Although Lane had two days to place the item on the agenda and comply with the state’s Open Meeting Act, which requires a minimum of 24-hours notice for agenda items, he chose instead to introduce the item without notice during the meeting.
When the commission decided to move beyond discussion and vote on a resolution, they were notified that it is illegal to take action on items not on the agenda.
Lane argued that a vote was legal under the emergency provision in the Open Meetings Act, which reads, “For purposes of this Subsection, an ‘emergency’ refers to unforeseen circumstances that, if not addressed immediately by the public body, will likely result in injury or damage to persons or property or substantial financial loss to the public body.”
Lane claimed that failure to act could result in “injury or damage to persons or property,” since Udall’s office had asked for a response within 10 days.
“I would say this is the appropriate time to take action, it’s legal and that we should move forward,” Lane said.
However, the bill was still in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at that time (it cleared the committee with bipartisan support on June 18) and Lane himself had stated earlier that the commission could take steps to try to stop the legislation before it came up for votes in the Senate and House.
Lane’s actions also raise questions about why Game and Fish had expressed no opposition to the bill earlier, since S.285 was introduced on Feb. 12, and two similar bills had been introduced in previous congressional sessions.
The New Mexico Wildlife Federation has filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office asking for the vote to be nullified.
Lane also omitted critical information during the meeting.
The bill contains three key provisions concerning hunting and fishing. They are:
(f) Fish and Wildlife- Nothing in this Act affects the responsibilities of the State with respect to fish and wildlife in the State, except that the Secretary, in consultation with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish--
(1) shall permit hunting and fishing on land and water within the Preserve in accordance with applicable Federal and State laws; and
(2) may designate zones in which, and establish periods during which, no hunting or fishing shall be permitted for reasons of public safety, administration, the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitats, or public use and enjoyment.
Lane’s argument for opposing the legislation centered on the second clause. Although the wording is identical to VCNP’s enacting legislation (which lacks the “shall permit” clause), Lane contended that the Secretary could use it to completely prohibit hunting in the preserve. He failed to inform the committee about the clause that states that nothing in the act affects the responsibilities of the State in regard to fish and game.
Oscar Simpson, state chair for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) (which supports the legislation) considers that a significant omission.
“The authority to regulate wildlife, the hunting and fishing on public land is set by each state Game and Fish Department. That’s true on public land and that doesn’t change. So the NPS wouldn’t be any different than the forest service or BLM,” Simpson said. “So it’s a big red herring, it’s a big smoke screen to try to throw up some mud. It’s a big disguise.”
“I think they’re trying to make the case that the National Park Service is going to break the law,” said Jeremy Vesbach, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF). “It wasn’t a credible argument. It was just kind of a knee-jerk, fear based reaction. What we found is most agencies tend to get a program in place and keep it in place.”
Vesbach also pointed out that the proposed legislation actually has stronger protections for hunting, since the current legislation does not mandate that the preserve “shall permit hunting and fishing.” The board of trustees could legally discontinue those at any time, although high revenues from those activities make that an unlikely scenario.
One of the most important omissions was Lane’s failure to inform the commission that under the proposed legislation the Valles Caldera would remain a national preserve, following the model of 18 other national preserves. All but one of those allows hunting and fishing. At Big Thicket National Preserve, the nation’s first preserve, hunting has been in continuous operation since 1974.
Lane instead made several misleading statements, such as referring to issues with elk management in Bandelier, which is a national monument and does not allow hunting.
When one commissioner asked if any national park allows hunting, Lane again failed to clarify that this would be a national preserve, not a national park. Instead he referred to a conversation with Wyoming’s director of Game and Fish concerning Grand Teton National Park, which has enabling legislation to allow hunting.
“It’s absolutely at best a headache, at worse, it does not get hunted because of that preservation mentality,” Lane said. “You’re talking about an organization deep down that is not inclined to use sport hunting as a tool to manage wildlife, but rather to call in sharp shooters to cull the population when it gets too large. That’s contrary to our mission, that’s contrary to good science, and it absolutely is not a benefit to the sportsmen and women of this state or this agency.”
“Grand Tetons National Park is not very comparable. Their authorizing legislation sets up this hunting, kind of management by committee. It’s a very complicated system that has led to complicated things on the ground,” Vesbach countered in a phone interview. “The current language copies the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve. That’s a really applicable model.”
Simpson has personally researched other preserves, including Great Sand Dunes.
“We talked to individuals, went up there and talked to managers and everybody seems to be happy with it. There are basically no problems: no backlogs, no locking out people,” Simpson said.
“I think Lane led his game commission to make a very uninformed, embarrassing decision because they had so little information at their disposal. They didn’t seem to have an understanding of what was in existing law and passed a resolution that said no change, which is not achievable,” Vesbach said.
“As a hunter I find it embarrassing what they did. It had the appearance of trying to hide an unpopular decision from public view. We rely on the state game commission to make a lot of rules that affect hunters, and we do not want to see that kind of thing become a habit.”
Vesbach expects the New Mexico attorney general’s office to void the vote.
Vesbach expressed relief that the Game Commission will revisit this issue and allow full public discussion at its Aug. 22 meeting in Grants.