NM Supreme Court hears venue arguments in case regarding overlapping leases of state lands for cattle, wind energy

The court battle over where to determine whether wind leases overlapping with a ranch owner’s grazing leases could impact his ability to raise cattle on state trust land reached the state Supreme Court. 

The Blanchard Corona Ranch first sued Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard in district court in Lincoln County, but Garcia Richard and her legal counsel say that Lincoln County is not the proper venue. The State Land Office then asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to find that the Lincoln County district court venue was improper. 

The New Mexico Supreme Court heard the arguments in the case on Wednesday, though no decision was made and there is no deadline for when the court must make a ruling. If the state Supreme Court sides with the defendant’s arguments, a district court ruling that the Lincoln County venue was proper would be reversed. “It’s basically a landlord telling a tenant ‘we’re going to issue a lease right on top of you and we don’t care what you say and we don’t have to follow our rules,’” Pete Domenici Jr., an attorney for Blanchard Corona Ranch, said. 

The Supreme Court justices were skeptical about the arguments in the case. Justice David Thomson said that state law and the lease contract may allow for wind energy to be developed on the land that the ranch owners are leasing. 

Thomson said the question is where the plaintiff gets to make their argument.

Lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico receives endangered species protections

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is listing the population of lesser prairie chicken within New Mexico as endangered. The lesser prairie chicken—which despite its name is not a chicken, but a grouse—is divided into two distinct population groups. The southern group includes birds living in parts of Texas and New Mexico in the Permian Basin area. “Lesser prairie chickens, known for their loud and showy mating rituals, are one of America’s most unique grassland birds,” Amy Leuders, the southwest regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said during a press conference on Thursday. “For generations, people have marveled at the strutting, dancing and booming sounds displayed each spring on their leks.”

She said the birds are synonymous with healthy prairies because they need “large unfragmented parcels of intact native grasslands to support self-sustaining populations.”

In total, there are about 32,000 birds in both population groups, though there were once hundreds of thousands of lesser prairie chickens in the United States.

Federal legislation aims to permanently withdraw lands around Chaco from mineral leasing

Democratic members of the New Mexico congressional delegation once again introduced legislation today that would permanently remove areas surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park from the federal mineral leasing program. This would prevent new oil and gas leases as well as coal and uranium mining on federal lands in the 10-mile buffer zone around the park. The proposal comes as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington Field Office is accepting comments on a 20-year moratorium on leasing in that area. Unlike Luján’s proposal, the withdrawal of federal lands around Chaco from the mineral leasing program is a temporary measure. In a press release, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said that protecting Chaco Canyon has been one of his top priorities.

Three watersheds impacted by historic mining receive federal funding

New Mexico will receive $300,000 in federal funds made available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for restoration projects in three watersheds in Luna and Santa Fe counties. These watersheds—Cooke’s Peak, Fluorite Ridge and New Placers—are located in areas where mining and milling operations have occurred in the past. 

The funding will help with removal of invasive vegetation, re-contouring of streambeds and mitigating for mine tailings. It will also fund revegetation with native seeds. The Bureau of Land Management is partnering with the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Mining and Minerals Division on the project, which is one of 17 projects that the U.S. Department of the Interior announced funding for on Tuesday. The 17 projects—totalling nearly $10 million—are focused on addressing legacy pollution and conserving ecosystems.

“At the Department of the Interior, we are using every tool at our disposal to support multiple programs to clean up these legacy environmental hazards, advance environmental justice, support good paying jobs, and safeguard our lands for future generations,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a press release on Tuesday.

Computer modeling can help prescribed burn decisions

Prescribed burns can be a key weapon in preventing catastrophic wildfire, but finding the right window to burn can be challenging and, with dry conditions, prescribed burning in New Mexico has come to a halt. A modeling effort by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists aims to provide agencies with a tool to determine when the conditions are best for burning. Rod Linn, a scientist with Los Alamos who leads the wildfire modeling team, told NM Political Report that various factors are used to determine when it is safe to burn, but conditions can change rapidly. On Saturday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a briefing that the state is banning fires campfires on stand lands and is asking every local government to think about ways to ban the sales of fireworks. This comes as 20 wildfires were actively burning, as of Saturday afternoon, in 16 counties in New Mexico. “Half the state has a fire issue,” she said.

When oil and gas wells stop producing, environmental impacts remain

Throughout New Mexico, there are thousands of oil and gas wells that have not produced in years but remain unplugged. One area with a high concentration of these sites is the Horseshoe Gallup field, located in the Hogback area west of the San Juan Generating Station in San Juan County. Environmental advocates have identified hundreds of wells, as well as associated infrastructure, in this field that have not produced in years. Some of these sites are contributing to environmental degradation. This includes leaking methane from a separator tank, overflowing tanks leading to puddles of thick black liquid on the ground and leaking chemicals from containers.

Haaland visits Chaco Culture National Historical Park

As the U.S. Department of the Interior begins the process of placing a 20-year moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands near Chaco Canyon, some nearby Indian allottees say that such an action would limit their ability to make a living off of their land. Meanwhile, proponents of the moratorium say it is needed to protect the sacred sites, lands and waters. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland drove by signs protesting the moratorium as she headed to Chaco Culture National Historical Park to celebrate President Joe Biden’s announcement of the moratorium impacting federal lands within a ten mile buffer of the park. While at the park, Haaland met with Indigenous and state leaders before addressing the crowd that had gathered for, what she described as, a celebration that was decades in the making. Haaland said Chaco Canyon is a living landscape.

Push continues to prevent gravel mining on 4,200 acre area in Sandoval County

The four Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation are pushing to have 4,200 acres of Bureau of Land Management land removed from mineral development, in particular gravel mining, in Sandoval County near Placitas. U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury introduced the Buffalo Tract Protection Act in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday. The bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and is also supported by two congressmen from California. On the Senate side, New Mexico’s senators, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, have co-sponsored the bill. The Buffalo Tract and the Crest of Montezuma, which are included in the bill, are popular recreation areas and ancestral lands of the Pueblo of Santa Ana and the Pueblo of San Felipe.

Chipmunk subspecies only found in the White Mountains could be listed as endangered

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking comments regarding listing the Peñasco least chipmunk as endangered. The Peñasco least chipmunk is a subspecies of the least chipmunk that has historically been found only in the White and Sacramento mountains of southern New Mexico. However, it has not been seen in the Sacramento Mountains since 1966 and its population in the White Mountains is declining and could be destroyed by catastrophic events like fire or disease. The nonprofit advocacy group WildEarth Guardians petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the chipmunk as endangered in 2011, citing threats like habitat loss and degradation as well as climate change. Related: Climate change places some of New Mexico’s unique species at risk

Following the petition, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that listing the chipmunk as endangered is warranted.

BLM lease sale seeks to expand geothermal energy in New Mexico

As part of an effort to increase renewable energy, the Bureau of Land Management will hold a virtual geothermal lease sale this fall for three parcels totaling nearly 4,000 acres. These parcels are located in Hidalgo and Sierra counties in southwest New Mexico. This comes after President Joe Biden issued an executive order to increase renewable and clean energy sources. Additionally, the Energy Act of 2020 directed the BLM to permit 25 gigawatts of solar, wind and geothermal on public lands no later than 2025. According to the BLM, as of May there were 36 wind projects and 37 solar projects on federal lands across the United States.