Last week, House Republicans announced members of the House Committee on Natural Resources for the 115th Congress.
That list included Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico who had previously served on the committee from 2003 through 2009.
In a statement from his office, Pearce said he plans to work on “restoring the health of our national forests, ensuring multiple use on appropriate federal lands, allowing Native American communities to grow and prosper, fighting for New Mexico water, preserving our national treasures and landmarks to safeguard them for future generations and more.”
NM Political Report asked Pearce’s chief of staff Todd Willens for more details about the congressman’s plans.
Willens declined to provide additional information, but wrote in an email that “as the agenda for the committee reveals itself, the Congressman will update the public.”
This session, the committee is chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a proponent of private property and states’ rights and an opponent of any new national monument designations.
Bishop announced last week the Republican members of the committee will “strengthen an aggressive agenda that we will pursue in partnership with a new administration.”
The committee, which includes 26 Republicans and 18 Democrats, considers legislation on a wide range of issues important to New Mexico, including public lands management, energy and mining, American Indians, fisheries, wildlife and irrigation.
It also includes five subcommittees focused on energy and mineral resources, federal lands, Indian, Insular and Alaska Native affairs, oversight and investigations and water, power and oceans.
As of press time, Bishop had not yet made subcommittee assignments.
Pearce is also chairman emeritus of the Congressional Western Caucus.
“We know that we’re in a political environment where we’re going to have to play a lot of defense,” said Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, which was a part of a coalition that spent more than a decade advocating for establishment of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
President Obama designated that 500,000-acre monument, which is within Pearce’s district in southern New Mexico, in 2014.
Pearce disapproved of that executive order, though he had earlier introduced a bill that, if passed, would have created a smaller, 60,000-acre monument.
Allison said he is worried about the committee’s ambitious agenda, which he added will likely include opposition to new monument designations, attempts to roll back environmental regulations and plans to open more public lands to oil and gas drilling and other commercial activities.
“But we don’t want to just play defense,” he said. “There are still important wilderness areas within Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks that deserve permanent protection, and up north in the Rio Grande del Norte [National Monument] there are about 24,000 acres of potential wilderness in Taos County that deserve permanent protection.”
Wilderness advocates would also like to see legislation to protect a stretch of the Gila River in New Mexico as Wild and Scenic, a designation that would preserve that river and watershed.
“We don’t want to just respond to a hostile Republican Congress and administration,” he said. “We also want to be proactive and try to get permanent protections in place.”
If past is prologue
In recent years, Pearce has opposed the federal program reintroducing Mexican Gray Wolves to New Mexico and supported the efforts of counties to cut trees within national forests, without permits, in an attempt to prevent forest fires.
In 2014, Pearce said the federal government was “overstepping its bounds one more time” when the U.S. Forest Service erected a fence around 20 acres of a habitat recovery area in the Lincoln National Forest. The fence was meant to keep cattle out of a small spring-fed creek.
Early this year, the Congressional Western Caucus sent a letter to President-elect Donald Trump, urging him to prioritize westerners for appointments to more than 60 federal positions within the Office of Management and Budget, White House Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior.
The Interior Department oversees agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Land and Minerals Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey.
In a statement released with the letter, Pearce said that the majority of positions affecting the West were filled during the Obama administration by people who “simply wanted to push an agenda,” ignored local input and created regulations that “disenfranchised and harmed westerners.”
Pearce has also asked Trump to review the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and reduce its size.
He supports Trump’s key appointments that would impact the western United States, including Ryan Zinke, the Montana congressman Trump tapped to lead the Interior Department and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as head of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Pearce has strong support from energy and natural resource donors.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, those sectors gave the most to his re-election campaign last year—$307,700 out of about $1.8 million in total donations. Two of Pearce’s five top contributors were energy companies, and donations from oil and gas companies alone totaled more than $220,000.
Friends and foes
On its website and Facebook page, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association congratulated Pearce on his new appointment. “We are glad you are working on the natural resources issues that are so important to New Mexico,” read the Facebook post.
In response to a question from NM Political Report about what issues will be important to the association during this congressional session, communications director Wally Drangmeister wrote: “We urge the U.S. Congress to embrace an energy policy that is scientifically-driven and promotes environmental stewardship, innovation, energy security and consumer protection.”
Meanwhile, conservation groups aren’t as happy about the news.
“The threat to public lands has never been more real,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a sportsmens group.
He said transfers of federally-held public lands into state or private control don’t just involve parcels of land. Those lands, he pointed out, also come with watersheds, cultural resources, wildlife and natural resources like oil and gas.
“We’re in this 100-year paradigm shift, where power is driven by the Koch Brothers and industry and they have put people in office who are out to privatize these things,” he said. “Pearce is a key figure in that movida, as we call it in New Mexico.”
VeneKlasen’s group is also wary of attempts to undermine environmental regulations and decades’ old laws such as the clean air and water acts, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
“These were pragmatic, bipartisan pieces of legislation that were a reaction to rivers on fire and myriad species going extinct,” he said.
“We in the conservation movement, we feel this isn’t just about people who care about wildlife,” he said. “This is about our kids. It’s a right to have clean water, and wildlife that is held in the public trust. It’s about the fundamental right of our children to inherit landscapes and watersheds that have integrity and are functional.”
New Mexico tradition
Given New Mexico’s huge tracts of public lands, reliance on water projects and an abundance of oil, gas, coal, copper and uranium, its congressional leaders have typically taken a strong interest in natural resources and energy.
In the past, former Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman held powerful positions in committees related to natural resources and energy. Current senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have carried on that tradition.
Udall’s current assignments include the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the Committee on Indian Affairs. He is also ranking senator on the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment on the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
Sen. Martin Heinrich serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who had sat on the House Natural Resources Committee in the past, today serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
That committee has a more broad jurisdiction than Resources, said Joe Shoemaker, Luján’s communications director.
Calling it a “legislative hotbed,” Shoemaker said the committee frequently takes up bills related to environment and energy.
“The EPA just ruled that they could not make payments to New Mexicans affected by the Gold King Mine spill, contrary to what they’d been saying for years and years,” he said, which upset the congressman. “Those kinds of things certainly come before the committee.”
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham serves on the House Committee on Agriculture, among others. Within that committee, she’s the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.
Lujan Grisham’s deputy director, Gilbert Gallegos, pointed out that the Agriculture Committee will start the process of marking up the Farm Bill this year.
Congress updates that bill every five years. The current bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014, includes provisions related to prices and markets, nutrition and “safety nets” for farmers, ranchers and growers.
Locally, Lujan Grisham is tracking issues related to the Gold King Mine spill, proposed gravel mining at the Buffalo Tract in Sandoval County and revisions to management plans for the Santa Fe and Carson national forests.
She also plans to push the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to implement plans to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry and is exploring ways to fix the “fire borrowing” issue. That’s when the U.S. Forest Service spends money from its regular operations to pay for fighting wildfires.