Lone Republican Concedes Public Land To The Public

Let them eat elk (for a while)

Finally, this week, the New Mexico land commissioner seemed to recognize that the governor, the attorney general and a whole lot of outdoor sportsmen who do not want the state to trade White Peak into private hands represent the vast majority. He backed off, for the moment.

Commissioner Patrick Lyons, the highest Republican state executive, thinks the opposition was partisan politics. “When you’re the only Republican game in town, they’re gunning for you,” he said at the outset. If the White Peak deal is an example of Republican statesmanship, it’s no wonder the Democrats nearly swept the last election.

Lyons and his sidekick Bob Jenks say trading off the wild 41,000 acres would be convenient because the high country is remote and hard to manage. See, it’s surrounded by private land, most of it on the UU Bar Ranch, in the hands of a former Southern tobacco executive named Brad Kelly. He was listed as an election contributor to Lyons, who also ranches in northeast New Mexico. Lyons proposes a complex trade that would make White Peak part of the UU Bar. That would mean the end of hunting for people who have lived in the area for generations.

Hunters, especially elk hunters, have been crossing the UU Bar for decades. But this is not a new issue. Twenty-five years ago, Gov. Jerry Apodaca intervened to resolve disputes between hunters and the UU Bar, then owned by a Texan. Things calmed down. But now with new ownership and a Republican in the land office, the proposed solution is: let the ranch have White Peak. No wonder Lyons thinks people are “gunning” for him.
Northeast New Mexico is beautiful, but not much of it is public land, because of the Maxwell Land Grant. Lucien Maxwell at one time had 1.7 million acres. Most of the fabulous private ranches in that corner of the state have titles going back to the land grant. One of the biggest is the Vermejo Park Ranch with it’s wild game and twin Victorian mansions. But you can’t get in there. It belongs to Ted Turner.

Thirty years ago the New Mexico Legislature could have bought the whole Vermejo — 473,000 acres — for $60 an acre. But the Legislature balked, and it went to Pennzoil for $28 million. The oil company got the money back 10 years later through an income tax deduction when it gave the western 100,000 acres to the state. Ross Perot in 1992 said the deal was arranged by George Bush Sr.

Now another Republican wants to do a Vermejo Park deal in reverse: trade off one of the few pieces of public land in northeast New Mexico. In return the state would get 50,000 acres around the old townsite of Dawson, at a lower-elevation. No elk that low, but the parcel has depleted coal reserves. Lyons and Jenks say this could be valuable again one day. Well, if so, maybe the state should buy Dawson. But this does not mean the state should sell White Peak.