About 36 conservation groups in New Mexico and elsewhere are working to pass a bill that would create the state's first dedicated funding sources to conserve and enhance land and water resources, habitats and certain species in New Mexico, with support from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and some legislators.
Senate Bill 9, cosponsored by Sens. Steven Neville (R-San Juan County) and Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe County), is scheduled to be heard this afternoon by the Senate Finance Committee. It received a “do pass” recommendation by a 7-0 vote from the Senate Conservation Committee on Jan. 31, but not without significant changes recommended by state departments and sponsors. Some of the amendments double the permanent fund balance and significantly increase the investment income required before any disbursement would be made from that fund to six state departments that deal with natural and cultural resource preservation and development.
The creation of the two funds, the Conservation Legacy Permanent Fund and the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund, under the state Miscellaneous Natural Resource Matters law, would be similar to what a few other states have done, said Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, which represents people in eight Western states and in Canada. One of its administrative offices is in Santa Fe.
“The closest example is the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. That has been a tremendously successful effort in Wyoming, putting hundreds of millions of dollars on the ground, leveraging state investments up to 5-to-1,” Allison said.
According to advocates for the funding and to an advocacy website, the money would be used for existing resource stewardship programs and to provide a reliable source of matching funds for federal grants, needed for the type of multistate, multijurisdictional projects often involved in conservation work. The money is meant to be used for such activities as preventing devastating forest fires, preserving and enhancing water sources, combating soil erosion, repairing watersheds to alleviate the loss of water and habitats and the debris pollution that can occur following flooding or heavy rains, protecting endangered plant and animal species, and fighting invasive and water-depleting species such as salt cedar.
Neville said that he and other legislators have worked for six years on the concept, but bills and funding have never made it through the entire legislative process.
Wirth added, “I think having a vehicle to be proactive is super-important and that is what this bill does. Also what is exciting is that it doesn't go try and rewrite a whole bunch or create a whole new set of statutory schemes in terms of distribution. It uses existing laws that many of us have worked on.”
Under the amended bill, the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund would receive $50 million from the state general fund to give to state agencies, with $12.5 million or 25% of the fund balance, whichever is greater, to be provided each year starting in July 2024. Then the Conservation Legacy Permanent Fund would be created with an initial $25 million to be used for long-term investment. In years when the permanent fund balance is at least $150 million and the investment income earned is at least $5 million, disbursements exceeding $5 million would go to the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund.
The amount of annual funding to be disbursed is now set at 22.5% each for the departments of Agriculture and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources. The Game and Fish Department would receive 22%. The Economic Development Department would get 15% for outdoor recreation and trail programs and development. The Environment Department would receive 10%, and the Department of Cultural Affairs would receive 8% to protect culturally significant properties on state trust lands. None of the funds could be used for eminent domain, according to an approved amendment.
A Fiscal Impact Report produced by the Legislative Finance Committee stated that the lack of any language in the bill about recurring legislative allocations means that future funding would be uncertain and that the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund would be depleted in about four years. According to the advocacy website, enchantmentfund.org, some of its advocates are wanting up to $350 million. Wirth is one of those encouraging other legislators to allocate up to $300 million using several different sources of funding.
Opposition to the bill has been expressed by representatives of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, and the San Francisco Water and Soil Conservation District. All said that they would want to see changes in current law and regulations or bill wording so that funding could not be used to acquire privately owned agricultural lands.