Maintaining healthy watersheds, reducing wildfire risk, enhancing biodiversity and protecting imperiled species have become more difficult with New Mexico’s warming climate — and the state’s environmental managers think a
$50 million general obligation bond would greatly help.
The Lujan Grisham administration will ask lawmakers in the upcoming 30-day legislative session to approve putting the so-called Land of Enchantment bond before voters in November to augment the state’s conservation funding.
In what likely would be the first statewide conservation bond, supporters say it would create a stable and secure funding source to carry out projects vital to New Mexico’s environmental health.
Those include restoring forests and watersheds, thinning trees, preserving historic sites, enhancing farm soil to increase carbon capture, buying or setting aside land for conservation, and expanding outdoor recreation.
Officials now must request funding each year from the Legislature, apply for grants or pull money from available revenues, which can be hit or miss depending on the economy.
“It would be difficult for us to meet our goals if we don’t find some new funding sources,” said Sarah Cottrell Propst, Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources Department secretary. “We feel we have to be creative and pursue all the options.”
The bond would be paid for with a property tax that would cost the average household a total of $2 over a 25-year period, Cottrell Propst said.
Some important projects now are underfunded, and some good ideas never get off the ground due to lack of money, State Forester Laura McCarthy said.
“We consistently have more projects proposed than we have funding for,” McCarthy said.
Cottrell Propst said cities and counties in the state have shown strong support for conservation bonds, approving 16 of them since 1988, totaling more than $80 million in funding.
In that same period, 51 conservation bonds have passed in other states, she said.
“It’s a well-known, well-used tool around the country and at the local level in New Mexico,” Cottrell Propst said. “We think that means it’s time to consider it at the state level.”
Protecting the past and future
As a preliminary plan, the $50 million has been divvied up among half a dozen agencies that would use the funds to oversee various tasks.
Lawmakers will have the final say of how much money each agency would receive.
The plan calls for the state Department of Cultural Affairs to receive $7 million to enhance and preserve historic sites.
Prime examples are the Jemez National Historic Landmark, Fort Stanton, Coronado and areas in the bosque.
Cottrell Propst’s agency would use $12 million to create conservation easements and restore watershed areas, using a 2010 state law called the Natural Heritage Conservation Act.
The law gives her agency authority to establish easements for projects to boost water quality, protect wildlife habitat, preserve cultural sites and create recreational opportunities, but beyond an initial $5 million in startup money, has never been funded.
This is an example of a dormant program that the bond money could revitalize, she said. New projects would be welcome, but there’s no need to create new programs because the blueprints already exist to help the environment, she said.
“There’s a lot of really good architecture,” Cottrell Propst said. “Let’s put it to use. Let’s fund it.”
One place that could benefit from a conservation easement is the Bioresearch Ranch in the Peloncillo Mountains, about 50 miles north of the Mexico border. It has operated since 1973 as an ecological research and monitoring site.
It is one of the most biodiverse lands in the Apache Highlands and contains a lot of high-priority habitat, Cottrell Propst said.
To the north, the bond could help pay for watershed work in Taos Canyon to ease wildfire risks to hundreds of homes, recreational sites and the Rio Fernandez, which flows to 23 acequias, she said.
The funding also could beef up restoration efforts around Santa Clara Pueblo, which include wetlands, bosque and areas damaged by the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, she said.
Scott Wilbur, executive director of the New Mexico Land Conservancy, said the initiative should extend to private property, which makes up half the land within the state.
Some of the money should go toward establishing easements on private land and helping the owners achieve the best conservation practices, Wilbur said.
Improving public lands alone won’t be enough to achieve Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s “30 by 30” goal, Wilbur said, referring to her executive order calling for 30 percent of New Mexico’s public lands to be protected by 2030.
“Water and wildlife don’t stop at boundaries,” Wilbur said.
Responding to climate change
A key objective would be thinning forests through selective cutting and prescribed burns to reduce the risks of a catastrophic blaze as a changing climate dries out trees and vegetation.
One area of priority is the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and another is near the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway in Colfax County, McCarthy said.
That’s the part of the state with the heaviest snowpack, and it feeds the Rio Grande, she said.
“We need to make sure those watersheds remain healthy,” McCarthy said.
In addition, the Environment Department would receive $7 million for its river stewardship program, and the Game and Fish Department would get $2.5 million to manage wildlife and habitat, which could involve buying land to protect.
The bond also would provide matching money required to obtain federal dollars for various projects, McCarthy said. That would include the soil and conservation districts, which must match funds from the federal Farm Bill.
“They are leaving federal money on the table because there has not been enough state match for New Mexico to get its fair share,” McCarthy said.
Peter Vigil of the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District said everyone could use more funding, especially the districts that rely solely on outside money.
To combat climate change, the districts try to make the soil better able to absorb carbon, he said. They work with farmers to plow less, use fewer chemicals and put more organic matter in the topsoil.
“We want to help landowners become better stewards of their lands, and that way, we help the planet,” Vigil said.
An increase in funding would naturally aid his district and others in this endeavor, he said.
“Anything that helps the soil and water conservation districts is going to help the landowners of New Mexico,” Vigil said.
Proposed bond funding of agencies Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department: $12 million Department of Agriculture: $12 million Environment Department: $7 million Economic Development Department: $9.5 million Department of
$7 million Department of Game and Fish: $2.5 million