After cheering the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which secured permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), New Mexico wildlife and conservation advocates were shocked to learn every single project proposed to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) for LWCF funds was rejected.
The LWCF, created by Congress in 1965 to support public land management using offshore oil and gas royalties, received $900 million annually under the Great American Outdoors Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in August. It marked just the second time since its creation that the program is fully funded. The Great American Outdoors Act, which environmental groups considered a historic public lands conservation package, passed the Senate with what some dubbed “rare” bipartisan support on a 73-25 vote. The bill was introduced earlier this year by Republican U.S. Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana—both of whom relied heavily on the Act’s passage in their respective reelection campaigns. New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich also supported the bill, as did U.S. Reps.
A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and co-sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland that would help land grant and acequia communities retain access to public lands for traditional uses advanced in Congress.
The Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act would require more consultation between the federal government and land grant and acequia groups in New Mexico in public lands management.
“The legislation will make it easier for land grant mercedes to work with federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service,” Luján said during a virtual legislative hearing in June, by requiring federal agencies “to make land grant mercedes aware of changes to management plans and encouraging agencies to mitigate any adverse impacts due to federal action.”
The bill would also create “a process to allow New Mexico’s land grants to establish their historic boundaries and provides them with pathways for acquiring that land when the federal government disposes of it,” Luján said, and that it would “ensure that the federal government appropriately recognizes spiritual and cultural sites while providing greater tools for land grants to acquire the lands that these sites reside on.”
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Spanish crown, and later the Mexican government, offered land grants to communities and individuals in New Mexico and across the southwest to promote settlement of the area. The land grants included tracts of communal land that were used for livestock grazing, firewood access and water delivery infrastructure such as acequias.
After the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred more than half of the territory in Mexico to the United States, the U.S. federal government was tasked with establishing a process for adjudicating the land grant titles.
Instead, the government sold off millions of acres of communal land, which Arturo Archuleta, program manager at the New Mexico Land Grant Council, said jeopardized those communities’ survival and their agrarian way of life.
“Our communities included common lands that provided the natural resources needed for our survival. These common lands were never intended to be privatized nor alienated from the communities’ common ownership and use,” Archuleta said during the virtual hearing.
The adjudication process was “faulty, inefficient, inequitable and in some cases fraudulent and corrupt — oftentimes, with U.S. federal government officials directly involved in the corruption,” Archuleta said.
“The end result of this unjust process was that millions of acres of common lands were stripped of the ownership of our local communities. Much of these former common lands are now managed by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management,” he said.
Archuleta said the bill, the product of 10 years of work between land grant and acequia communities and the state’s congressional delegation, offers “important first steps in rectifying the historical injustices that have crippled our communities for over a century.”
“Over the years, our communities have been placed at odds with federal land management agencies, not by our own choice, but as a direct result of having our traditional use needs ignored — partly because we are not always at the table when land management decisions are being made,” Archuleta said. “The passage of [bill] H.R. 3682 would help ensure federal land management policies and practices regardless of changes in the administration, will honor, respect, protect and conserve our traditional uses now and for future generations.”
The bill moved out of the House Committee on Natural Resources on July 30 and now heads to the House floor.
U.S. Rep Deb Haaland, joined by officials from the state Department of Health and the UNM Hospital, fielded questions Tuesday evening from constituents about testing parameters, equipment shortages and whether the state has enough hospital beds. The telephone town hall was held Tuesday evening, before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham enacted further restrictions on businesses to enforce social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a disease caused by a type of coronavirus. U.S. Rep Ben Ray Lujan held a separate conference call on Tuesday about the coronavirus. RELATED: Guv: Restaurants take-out or delivery only; malls, many businesses closed
“We are working extremely hard to make sure we have everything we need,” Haaland said. “The $6 million that came to the state, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is putting that to excellent use.”
Facilities around the country are facing shortages in medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, including New Mexico.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was late, according to one of New Mexico’s members of Congress, in notifying the state about a Socorro couple who returned to New Mexico from an Egypt cruise where COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus, was known to be present. The couple later tested positive for the virus. U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland spoke about the issue during a recent House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the coronavirus. Haaland said the CDC waited 10 days before alerting the state about the couple. “Nobody notified the state or the health department about them being on a cruise ship where coronavirus was found.
On Monday, federal employees will return to work. For now. After more than 30 days, the partial federal shutdown ended Friday. During that time, almost 11,000 New Mexicans—and 800,000 people nationwide—were either furloughed or working without pay. But many people remain wary, given that the deal worked out between Congress and the White House only reopens the government for three weeks, through February 15.