January 26, 2023

State Legacy Fund would help draw federal dollars to conservation programs

Laura Paskus

By Scott Wyland, The Santa Fe New Mexican

At least a billion dollars in federal conservation money is available to aid New Mexico in everything from restoring watersheds and protecting imperiled species to helping ecosystems better withstand climate change.

The state is missing out on most of it because it lacks matching funds.

Some state leaders, environmental groups and businesses hope the Legislature will approve a $75 million fund to draw federal money to a medley of state conservation programs among a half-dozen agencies.

A bipartisan bill to establish the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund is expected to be introduced this week — not to be mistaken with the proposed $50 million bond with a similar name that stalled in the Legislature last year.

“Our goal in coming together is to ensure that these programs have a dedicated funding stream at the state level so that they can leverage literally billions of dollars that are available at the federal level that New Mexico isn’t taking full advantage of,” Brittany Fallon, senior policy manager for lands at Western Resource Advocates, said during an online conference.

Fallon described the bill as “elegant” because it doesn’t create new state programs and bureaucracy but funnels money to existing programs that are “underfunded or never funded or sporadically funded.”

Thirteen states have dedicated funds like this, allowing them to draw significantly more federal money than New Mexico can, Fallon said.

The federal matching portion varies, but can go as high as $3 for every $1 the state chips in, she said.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe; Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces; and Republican Sen. Steve Neville of Farmington are co-sponsoring the bill.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham mentioned the Legacy Fund in her State of the State speech, saying it’s a prime example of her administration redoubling its commitment to the environment.

The money will be used to “create sustained funding for state programs that protect our environment, combat issues like drought and water scarcity, and address the roots of climate change,” the governor said.

The state’s River Stewardship Program, Healthy Soil Program and Outdoor Equity Fund are among the programs that would be beefed up.

By reeling in more federal dollars, this fund would enhance programs that support the state’s agricultural industry, whose members make up a minute slice of the population but who are “feeding and clothing the entire world, said Debbie Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Conservation Districts.

“Many of these programs will help create a lot of jobs as well as helping with the state’s economy,” Hughes said. “Not only do you improve soil health, you improve wildlife habitat, improve rangelands, grasslands — those ecosystems for those different kinds of species.”

The fund also will aid the restoration of many watersheds and acequias, including ones in Northern New Mexico affected by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, said Garrett VeneKlasen, northern conservation director for New Mexico Wild.

“This is so much about infusing state money into federal funds to really create robust and, especially, permanent restoration programs,” VeneKlasen said, “whether we’re trying to restore badly burned watersheds or do preventative thinning measures. A lot of our watersheds don’t hold water or deliver water very efficiently.”

It’s important work that costs a lot money, he added.

The money would expand the Outdoor Equity Fund, so it can make nature more accessible to kids who have been traditionally cut off from such experiences — fostering not only a love of the outdoors but a conservation spirit, said Josue De Luna Navarro of the Semilla Project.

“The outdoors has predominantly always been a very white space,” De Luna Navarro said. “The Outdoor Equity Fund was that first seed in our organization … to start providing this bridge for our youth to have access to the outdoors.”

Fallon said she has heard some lawmakers plan to pursue $100 million or more for the Legacy Fund.

She would like to see double or triple that amount, she said, so the state can tap more federal infrastructure dollars and Inflation Reduction Act funds before they begin to run out.

New Mexico already has missed a big bite of the apple because it didn’t have matching money last year, she added.

Jake McCook, a political consultant who specializes in conservation issues, said lawmakers should be encouraged to think big as they decide the pot of state money.

“When are we going to have this opportunity again?” McCook said. “Now is the moment, and we’re in an existential crisis in terms of water issues, habitat issues. Things are really badly broken, and these things take decades, sometimes, to mitigate.”