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Great American Outdoors Act expected to help area

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U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt talks Tuesday afternoon with the editorial staff of the Roswell Daily Record. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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Bernhardt talks about conservation funding, other priorities

The Great American Outdoors Act could mean improvement projects at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properties in Chaves County, as well as funding for conservation or outdoor recreational projects in the area, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has said.

In Roswell on Tuesday to meet with elected officials, Bernhardt talked with the Roswell Daily Record about the legislation he calls “game-changing” because of its promise of annual federal funding for projects intended to benefit local communities and residents.

The Cabinet secretary also talked about many other topics related to the wide-ranging purview of the U.S. Department of Interior.

Conservation legislation of a ‘lifetime’

Bernhardt said the Interior Department is still reviewing which deferred maintenance projects it will fund at national parks, wildlife refuges, national historic sites and other federal conservation projects.

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One part of the Great American Outdoors Act, signed Aug. 4, provides about $10 billion during five years to restore roads, trails or buildings that need to be improved to continue functioning or to reopen. The funding will come from federal revenues for energy development activities on federal land.

“It will certainly mean additional dollars to New Mexico,” Bernhardt said. “We haven’t finalized the list just yet, but we are in the process of doing that.”

In Chaves County, there are two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services properties that are under the Interior Department. Those are the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Southwestern Aquatic Resources Recovery Center in Dexter.

According to a White House announcement, about 5,500 miles of road, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings in national parks or on public lands are in critical need of repair.

The other major provision of the act creates guaranteed annual allocations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The $900 million a year can be used for land conservation, public land improvements, water protection or outdoor recreation projects. The money will come from federal royalties for offshore oil and gas operations.

“What is tremendous about it, it is permanent, mandatory funding, every year,” he said, “unless Congress changes the law.”

Bernhardt said that a person who wrote a report about the need for maintenance at national parks called the legislation the most important conservation legislation of his lifetime. Others, including New Mexico congressional leaders, have referred to it as the most significant investment in public lands in a generation.

Bernhardt explained the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) had existed since 1964, but it has been fully funded only a couple of years since.

According to the New Mexico Economic Development Department, two known funding requests that could be eligible for LWCF funding in the area are a Chaves County walking trail and an extension to the recreational trails near the Cielo Grande Recreation Area in Roswell.

BLM leadership change

Bernhardt said William Perry Pendley will continue to serve as deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and have a large role in its policies and decisions, regardless of what happens with a federal court case about his appointment as acting director.

A federal judge in Montana ruled Sept. 25 that Pendley could no longer serve in the position because he has not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Bernhardt said the U.S. government has notified the court of its disagreement with the decision and will appeal “if necessary.”

“We are pretty clear that we think the judge made an error,” he said. “I know that the way I appointed Pendley is a process the department has used over 200 times, so it is a very true and tried process and I am very confident that it is consistent with the law.”

Until the court’s order is changed or a successful appeal occurs, Bernhardt said he will assume the authority that Pendley cannot. He added that he thinks that Pendley has done a good job.

“It really doesn’t change the operations of the department,” he said.

Wildfire prevention

Bernhardt said he has proposed to Congress that the Interior Department receive $50 million to hire fire crews on a permanent basis, rather than just as seasonal workers. He also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to make a $50 million request for the same purpose.

“What I have seen over the last years is that the fire season is a little longer and fires are more catastrophic,” he said. “What happened is, because people are trying to protect hours later, it was harder to do fire treatments earlier because we were burning through people’s hours. So what I have proposed to Congress this year is that we move away from that seasonal firefighting force and that we begin to move to a full-time force.”

He said the federal government has increased fire prevention efforts by about 37% during the past year but is still “way in the hole” in its forest management. He also said that state governments need to take action as well.

“I think in all fairness the states are realizing that they need to do more treatment, too,” he said. “We need to do the intervention that we need to do and I think we need to do that in a way that we are adding personnel and people.”

Bernhardt said he recognizes that the world’s climate is changing and that climate change has to be “factored into everything” affecting public lands.

Energy development, critical minerals

The Interior Department and its Bureau of Land Management are considering how to help stabilize energy development at a time of volatile market conditions.

“At a time like this, we are looking at the benefit of the government to make sure that production continues,” he said, “and the wisdom of that versus, can we allow people to shut in?”

He explained that, during a market downturn, oil and gas operators have to weigh whether they can continue to operate wells or whether they should shut them down, which could mean that those wells will never be productive again.

He said the federal government is looking at its regulations and a possible restructuring of royalty payments to provide incentives to keep wells operating even when market conditions make continued operations unprofitable otherwise.

He also said the Interior Department has been tasked by the Presidential Administration about how to ensure that the United States has future access to “critical minerals” that are essential components for modern technology and manufacturing. As part of that effort, the department has developed a list of critical minerals, finding that about half on the list are now produced primarily in other countries, some of which are hostile to the United States or are unstable.

Law enforcement

Part of Bernhardt’s time in southeastern New Mexico was expected to be spent at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, where law enforcement officers employed by the Interior Department receive some of their training.

At the current time, the Interior Department is focusing on preventing crimes at national monuments and historic sites and solving cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.

“The incident of crime for these women as a population is much higher than certainly it should be, but even compared to the rest of the population,” he said.

He said the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are part of a national task force aimed at not only solving crimes but at educating people about some of the causes — including domestic violence, illegal activities and alcohol and drug abuse — so that crime rates can be lowered in the future.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.