New Mexico Forestry Division Flooded With Angry Comments Over The Proposed Forestry Legacy Program
“We weren’t even informed that the state was attempting to implement such a program.” Lincoln County Commissioner Rick Simpson
A flood of angry comments from concerned New Mexico county officials and residents, has forced the New Mexico Forestry Division to extend the comment period on its proposed Forest Legacy Plan from September 28 to December 31, 2000..
Forestry Division employee, Robert Skivinski stated in a public hearing at Capitan on September 21 that the state is to receive 50 million dollars from the U.S. forest service if the plan is implemented. "The money," Skivinski explained, "would be used to purchase conservation easements," (also called property development rights) on private lands to prevent those lands from being developed.”
As Skivinski conducted the meeting in Capitan, the Lincoln County Commission was in monthly session in Carrizozo. "We knew nothing of the Forestry Division meeting," stated Lincoln County Commissioner Rick Simpson. " We weren’t even informed that the state was attempting to implement such a program, but you can sure believe we are going to find out what is going on!"
The Hidalgo County Commission was also upset over the covert tactics used by the Forestry Division. In a tersely worded letter to Governor Gary Johnson, Chairman Lloyd Payne wrote, "As most of the citizens of Hidalgo County have received no public notice of your proposed action, as I request that you publish in a newspaper with general local distribution, your proposed actions, and grant an extension for the comment period until December 30th. If this is not done, it will be taken as another attempt to make an end run on the local entities by state and federal agencies."
Chairman Payne emphasized, "In our county we have seen the effect of either state or federal usurpation of our local rights in the management of our resources, to the detriment of our local way of life, customs and traditions. If Washington, D.C., or Santa Fe, NM bureaucrats try to micro-manage our local concerns, it has often been to our disadvantage." He further stated that, "Local governments, must have the right to approve or disapprove of any Forest Legacy Programs initiated in their districts."
Fred Rossbach Forestry Division Preservation Chief said that the state intended to contract with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as The Nature Conservancy to purchase the conservation easements for the state. "They will be paid a percentage of the purchase price either by the state or the land owner," Rossbach acknowledged in a telephone interview.
The State’s intent to put the NGOs on the payroll brought a quick response from Auggie Shellhorn, Chairman of the Catron County Commission. Shellhorn wrote a strongly worded letter to New Mexico State Forester Toby Martinez stating, "Our main concern is the protection of the landowner and the taxpayers from the demonstrated avarice of certain Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). In other states and in federal programs, these NGOs have histories of underpaying the farmer or rancher for conservation easements and then immediately overcharging the government for the same easement. For example, there is a widely known case of an NGO buying a conservation easement for $1 million and selling it to the United States Government the next day for $3 million, unjustly enriching itself at both landowner and public expense."
Gary Whitehead, Sierra County Manager also wrote a stout retort to Martinez. Whitehead contended, "This practice abuses both the landowner and the taxpayer and if your agency sets up a program to purchase conservation easements, we urge you to structure it in a manner to prevent this abuse. Purchases should be made only from the landowner or, if conservation easements are to be purchased from an NGO, the purchase should be made only at the value at which the NGO paid for it."
Conservation easements as proposed in the Forest Legacy Plan have long been a controversial move for landowners. Critics contend that conservation easements destroys local tax bases, locks up the land forever and makes the landowner a tenant on his own property because of mandatory monitoring by a third party. The American Farm Bureau Federation notes that "A landowner who enters into such an agreement not only signs away his right to change the use of the land, but also gives away the rights of any future owner to change the use of the land."
Dr. Floy Lilley, University of Texas at Austin, in a recent research paper on conservation easements pointed out that, "Private ownership advocates, alert to regulatory takings, appear lulled and beguiled by a modern ritual of property suicide known as a conservation easement. This freshest destruction of the fundamental stick in our bundle of real property rights is self-inflicted. Willingly, voluntarily and deliberately, landowners -- large in numbers and small in holdings are signing away the basic stick that is owner choice of land use and disposition."
The New Mexico based Paragon Foundation offers a free series of research papers on the hazards of conservation easements. Call Paragon toll free 1-877-847-3443. The complete New Mexico Forest Legacy Program may be obtained by calling the NM Forestry Department at 505-827-7865.