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New Mexico needs to dedicate money to more conservation projects, groups say

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – The Land of Enchantment is home to vast forests and deserts, meandering rivers and streams and a variety of wildlife.

Now a coalition of outdoor recreation and conservation groups is pointing to an influx of federal stimulus money and a healthy state budget as funding sources for projects to protect and promote New Mexico’s natural resources.

The groups are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to direct $65 million of the state’s remaining $1.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding to “shovel-ready” conservation programs and projects.

The 15 groups outlined spending priorities in a Sept. 30 letter to the governor and cabinet secretaries for the Economic Development, Finance and Administration, Environment and Energy Minerals, and Natural Resources departments.

Brittany Fallon, policy director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said pandemic relief money puts the state in an “unprecedented” funding position.

Economic Development Department data estimates that the outdoor recreation industry directly supports $1.2 billion in income and 33,500 jobs, and contributes $2.3 billion to the state’s GDP.

“We’re advertising all over the world for tourism to New Mexico, for people to come here and visit our places, and we’re not maintaining the trails,” Fallon told the Albuquerque Journal. “We’re not installing the trash cans that we need, we’re not doing the work we should be to conserve the places that we’re trying to make a linchpin of our economy.”

30×30 initiative

The Biden administration announced the federal America the Beautiful and 30×30 initiative earlier this year.

The effort focuses on protecting water quality and wildlife and reducing carbon emissions on public and private lands.

Lujan Grisham’s Aug. 25 executive order mirrors that federal initiative and set a goal of conserving 30% of all lands and waters in the state by 2030.

The 30×30 initiative created a task force of state agency leaders who will “support and implement programs designed to conserve, protect and enhance lands and natural environments.”

“I believe that New Mexico is going to lead the country in 30-by-30 conservation efforts that really make a difference for generations to come,” the governor said at the executive order signing event.

Trail projects

The coalition requests that the Outdoor Recreation Division receive $10 million for trail development grants.

The Legislature approved $500,000 for the FY2021 Trails+ program. The agency had asked lawmakers for $3.2 million.

Outdoor Recreation Division Director Axie Navas said grants help communities invest in trail signs and river access, and prevent overuse and degradation of soil and water quality.

“It’s about protecting these places, but not at the expense of people who live there, and enabling access in safe, sustainable ways,” Navas said.

In October 2020, the division awarded trail project funding to six organizations. Most of the project sites have started construction.

Grants are available for tribes, municipalities, counties, acequia associations, land grants and nonprofit organizations.

“So many of us as New Mexicans derive so much joy from these (outdoor) places and our livelihood from these places,” Navas said. “They are our classrooms and our offices. A people-centric approach has to be part of the equation.”

Water, forests

The conservation groups are asking that a total of $25 million in ARPA funding go to forest and water projects.

Dan Roper, a Trout Unlimited angler conservation program coordinator, said those projects could create a “restoration workforce” to improve watersheds and fish habitat.

“It can be really labor intensive when you invest in all kinds of habitat restoration,” Roper said. “You can create a lot of jobs in communities.”

Adding money to state agency programs that have remained stagnant for years could help New Mexico adapt to a changing climate that threatens water quality and quantity.

“A lot of our rivers have some form of what we would call impairments or degraded habitat,” Roper said. “That may be eroded or incised stream banks or rivers that are no longer connected to their floodplains. There’s a whole host of ecological benefits that we stand to lose.”

The coalition is requesting that the money pay for an EMNRD forest and watershed health program and an NMED river stewardship program.

The EMNRD program aims to manage forests in a way that prevents large wildfires and works to restore or protect rivers, streams and acequia systems from fire damage.

The NMED program addresses surface water quality and river habitat.

Park maintenance

New Mexico’s 35 state parks see about 4.75 million visitors annually.

The coalition is requesting that the State Parks Division receive $15 million in ARPA funds to repair old infrastructure and build new facilities.

State Parks director Toby Velasquez said a funding boost would target capacity issues at high-use areas like Pecos Canyon and Fenton Lake.

“The romantic part about recreation is the campfires and the s’mores,” Velasquez said. “The by-product of that is there’s no opportunities for people to dispose of their RV waste.”

The parks director said the agency needs to adapt facilities to climate-induced threats of bigger wildfires and receding water levels.

“It’s going to take big measures for us to start to really catch up to what needs to be done, especially on properties where investment hasn’t been made in quite a few years,” Velasquez said.

Game and Fish Department

Land acquisition is a key piece of the 30×30 initiative.

The coalition asks that $10 million go to New Mexico Game and Fish Department and State Parks for land acquisition projects.

Game and Fish recently bought a 7,500-acre property near Fort Sumner. The Pipkin Ranch parcel will now connect two other state properties that the agency manages as lesser prairie chicken habitat.

“Purchasing and maintaining property, such as this ranch, provides a great example of conserving wildlife habitat,” said Sharon Salazar Hickey, who is chairwoman of the state Game Commission. “To the average eye, the Pipkin Ranch might look like rolling grassland with little value, but to the lesser prairie chicken it is a chance for growth and an important conservation stronghold.”

Money from NGL Energy Partners and from fishing and hunting license sales enabled Game and Fish to buy the ranch.

The letter also requests that Game and Fish receive $5 million for habitat restoration and addressing at-risk species.

ARPA spending

Lujan Grisham has said her administration will use $656 million in ARPA funding for the state unemployment fund.

Two lawmakers have petitioned the state Supreme Court with a challenge as to the governor’s spending authority for the remaining funding.

Governors and lawmakers in Wyoming, Michigan, Maine and New Hampshire have all either allocated or proposed spending the latest pandemic stimulus money on state parks, outdoor recreation and conservation.

Greg Peters, a public lands and wildlife advocate with Conservation Voters New Mexico, said the state should follow the national trend to build a “conservation legacy.”

“The last 10 years, New Mexico hasn’t had a proactive public lands agenda,” Peters said. “But these are opportunities now to make significant progress in protecting our lands, waters, wildlife and cultural heritage.”