New Mexico lawmakers support spending $75 million on state's conservation efforts via bill

A bill to earmark $75 million in New Mexico state funds for conservation and environmental projects throughout the state cleared its first hurdle on the way to becoming law Tuesday, after being proposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Lujan Grisham in her budget recommendation for the next fiscal year proposed the program, providing funds to state agencies for projects targeting issues like wildfire response, drought and water security, agriculture and outdoor recreation.

That took the form of Senate Bill 9, which would establish Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund, earmarking $50 million for the fund from New Mexico’s General Fund, and another $25 million to create the Conservation Legacy Permanent fund.

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It was passed by the Senate Conservation Committee on a unanimous 7-0 vote across party lines and will next be considered by the Senate Finance Committee on its way to a vote on Senate Floor.

“This first-of-its-kind fund will provide resources to protect and preserve the lands and waters that New Mexicans so treasure,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement as the bill was introduced last week.

“By dedicating increased and stable supports for critical conservation programs, we will ensure that New Mexico continues to be the Land of Enchantment for generations to come.”

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Agricultural groups the New New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau voice opposition to the bill, amid concerns for language allowing the dollars allocated be used to buy up private agricultural lands towards achieving its goals.

"I understand the economic impact that this does for our state, but agriculture has been compromising ourselves to death," said Bronson Corn, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "This is one thing that I firmly believe the bill should not have in it."

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The Conservation Legacy Permanent Fund would be distributed by the State Investment Officer as Land Grant Permanent funds for the projects, while the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund would be specified for distribution to six state agencies at various percentages.

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Either $12.5 million or 25 percent of the Legacy Fund would be distributed each year.

The bill, if passed, would require 22.5 percent of those dollars go to the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s programs under the Forest Conservation Act, Forest and Watershed Restoration Act and the Prescribed Burning Act, along with the National Heritage Conservation Act.

Another 22.5 percent would go to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to support programs under the Noxious Weed Management Act, the Healthy Soil Act and the Soil and Water Conservation District Act.

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To support wildlife conservation efforts, the bill would send 22 percent of the fund to the Department of Game and Fish.

The New Mexico Environment Department would get 10 percent of the funds for its River Stewardship Program, and 15 percent would go to the Outdoor Recreation Division of the Economic Development Department.

Programs under the Cultural Properties Protection Act would get 8 percent for the Department of Cultural Affairs.

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SB 9 sponsor Sen. Peter Wirth (D-25) of Santa Fe said New Mexico should have dedicated funds designed to support environmental and conservation initiatives through State government.

That could help mitigate worsening climate change, he said, and address local impacts throughout New Mexico.

“We’ve made steady progress on land and water stewardship in recent years, but never had the dedicated source of state funding that our communities deserve,” Wirth said. “New Mexico is reeling from the effects of climate change, and this fund will help communities be more resilient as we continue to deal with wildfires, flooding and long-term drought.”

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The bill received bipartisan support, with cosponsor Sen. Steven Neville (R-2) arguing the funds would help support rural communities and the industries that support them.

“The Land of Enchantment Fund will leave a legacy for our children to hunt, fish, farm, ranch and enjoy the lands and waters the way our ancestors have for generations,” Neville said.

“I’m proud to support this bill to deliver resources to our rural, tribal and agricultural communities so they can apply for projects they know work best for them.”

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Brittany Fallon, western lands senior policy manager with conservation nonprofit Western Resource Advocates said the bill would take advantage of state funds in protecting New Mexico’s lands and waters for future use.

“With support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, it’s clear we must prioritize land and water conservation this session,” Fallon said. “We are eager to continue this positive momentum as it moves through the legislative process so that we can have a sustainable fund in place to protect and restore New Mexico’s landscape for future generations.”

Concerns arose from state agencies that the bill did not specify future appropriations for the programs, although the initial funding could create the expectation that it will continue, read an analysis from the Legislative Finance Committee.

“The area of greatest concern, as explained by multiple agency analyses, remains the sustainability of the fund without the guarantee of future appropriations,” the report read. “Although Senate Bill 9 does not specify future appropriations, establishing a new fund could create an expectation that the program will continue in future fiscal years.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Bill spending $75M on New Mexico conservation efforts advances