SANTA FE — New Mexicans must insist on preserving their public lands and wildlife for future generations, a diverse range of speakers said Wednesday at the 2019 Public Lands Rally at the state Capitol.
Ray Trejo, southern New Mexico outreach coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, told the crowd that protecting public lands is critical to preserving the state’s hunting and fishing heritage.
“After all, it is our public lands, correct?” Trejo said. “I started out hunting with my grandfather, and fishing with my grandfather. That was how we got meat for the table, rabbit hunting and fishing.”
Trejo, a retired educator, said his family traces its roots to Mexico. He said he was proud to see hundreds of high school students from around the state who came to the Capitol as part of the “Dream Team” to support bills that would prohibit discrimination against undocumented immigrants.
“This is the generation that we, as public land advocates, need to continue to educate,” Trejo said.
Wednesday’s rally, put on by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and a number of other conservation groups, drew speakers from around the state.
Many, including staffers who read statements from New Mexico’s two U.S. senators, expressed concern about the threat that drilling for energy poses to the Greater Chaco region in northwestern New Mexico.
Daniel Tso, a member of the Protect Greater Chaco Coalition, has served on the Navajo Nation Council.
“What we’re seeing is the destruction of the landscape, the destruction of the public lands, all in the name of money,” Tso said. “Money for the federal government, money for the state of New Mexico. And at risk is the pristine aquifer that is the lake under ground.”
Despite receiving thousands of public comments in opposition, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans a March 28 auction of energy leases on 11,000 acres, including over 10,000 acres in the Greater Chaco region.
The BLM has been auctioning leases on millions of acres of public land for oil and gas nationwide. More than 10,000 citizens filed protest comments to the agency’s New Mexico oil and gas lease sale in December but the agency is still moving forward on its next planned sale in March.
Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner with WildEarth Guardians, called oil and gas drilling one of the chief threats to public lands in the state. She said Wednesday was the last day for public comments on the sale and said 33,000 comments in opposition had been collected.
Francesca Di Palma, a staffer with the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., read a statement from the senator. “New Mexico’s public lands help define our state, our heritage and our future,” he stated.
Udall’s statement noted that the Senate this month passed a bill that calls for permanent reauthorization for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The measure, which would also expand wilderness areas in New Mexico and elsewhere, is now pending in the House.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in the 1960s. It collects money from offshore energy production that has gone to purchase public lands. In New Mexico, proceeds from the fund have gone to purchase the Valles Caldera in the Jemez Mountains, among other properties.
“We must continue to safeguard the greater Chaco Canyon area,” Udall stated. He said he intends to push legislation to specify that only Congress has the authority to reduce the size of designated national monuments.
Eric Castillo, a staffer with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., read a statement from the senator. Heinrich said he intends to introduce a bill this year that would change Bandelier National Monument and White Sands National Monument into full-fledged national parks.
Stephanie Garcia Richard, New Mexico commissioner of public lands, addressed the rally in the Capitol Rotunda. She drew applause saying she had been successful in getting state regulators to reconsider a decision to double the number of wells in the San Juan Basin, in northwestern New Mexico.
“This past year, it was my privilege to stand with many of you outside the BLM offices to speak out against drilling in Chaco and future lease sales in the area,” Garcia Richard said. “Our land, our people, our rich cultural history, are sacred. They deserve our protection.”
Garcia Richard said she will issue an order in coming weeks that will impose a moratorium on all new oil and gas activity on state trust land in the Chaco area.
“For too long, we have held onto practices that have ignored our communities, agricultural resources and the environment. That ends here,” Garcia Richard said.
In addition to the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, the following organizations sponsored the rally: WildEarth Guardians, Food and Water Watch, Frack Free Four Corners, Frack Off Greater Chaco, National Parks Conservation Alliance, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Sierra Club Northern Rio Grande Chapter, The Wilderness Society and Trout Unlimited.