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Don’t underestimate land commissioner job

By Sherry Robinson

Ray Powell’s winning campaign to “clean up the State Land Office” paralleled Susana Martinez’s winning campaign to clean up Santa Fe.
Outgoing State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons groused, like the outgoing chief executive, that the candidate was campaigning against him and not the opponent.
True on both counts.
The campaign for state land commissioner, largely overshadowed by drama higher on the ballot, deserved more attention because it’s probably New Mexico’s second most powerful position.
One of two constitutional officers (the other is the governor) established by statehood enabling legislation, the commissioner can sell, lease or trade land on his own authority. The office manages 13 million acres of trust land; the income generated supports schools, hospitals and other beneficiaries.
By “cleaning up,” Powell means opening the processes to public scrutiny. “It’s longer, messier and more frustrating, but you have a product at the end that’s more satisfactory. The more sunshine from the very beginning of the process, the better off you are.”
This was an early lesson in his previous stint as commissioner (1993 to 2002), when he and his staff crafted what they considered a sound community development plan for Edgewood.
“They were mortified. It took us 27 public meetings after that to regain the public trust. It was their community, and they had a vision of what they wanted.” After that, he attended meetings armed only with a map and a question: “How do we optimize this?”
Sunshine was a missing commodity in two of his predecessor’s more controversial land deals. In the first, Lyons scuttled open bidding to lease land to a Las Cruces developer who was one of his campaign contributors.
In recent months, Lyons pushed through the White’s Peak land exchange – over the objections of hunters, the state Game Commission and nearby communities. During his previous term, Powell turned down the same deal after holding meetings in the communities and listening to citizens. “It became clear that selling or trading was not in the best interests of the community,” he says.
The prospective buyers continued to visit Powell, but the answer was still no. From Lyons they got a yes. (The Supreme Court is still deciding the outcome.)
“What has people so upset is there was no sunshine, no transparency – it was just done,” Powell says.
Two of Powell’s goals will be to discuss land exchanges, long-term leases or sales in well publicized, local public meetings and institute a local land-approval process for long-term leases.
Every sale, trade and lease will be on an open bid. “That worked fine for 10 years,” he says.
Anyone looking at Powell’s close ties to environmentalists might wonder how he will treat ranchers and the oil and gas industry.
Powell sees both groups as important partners: “Having people connected to the land, producing a product, paying a fee to use the land is a win-win because they look after the land.” The presence of lessees reduces the incidence of illegal activity like dumping. He recognizes the oil and gas industry’s importance, but allows, “They need to pay their fair share and take care of the health of the land. The vast majority of producers are responsible.”
Everybody, he says, should care more about the long term than the political term: “If you contaminate the groundwater, you’ll never be able to clean it up. The key is not contaminating it in the first place.”
The industry may take comfort in Powell’s view of regulations. The State Land Office isn’t a regulatory agency, he says, “but how regulations are applied has a huge impact on the revenue stream and the care of the land.
To me, the most important thing is to do things based on peer-reviewed science. It’s got to make sense.”
Making sense is an admirable goal.

Sherry Robinson
NM News Services