A third of New Mexico is federally owned, but the state might buy some of it back

December 30, 2013

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of a local newspaper. It is the Santa Fe New Mexican.

More than a third of the land in New Mexico is owned by the federal government, but the state might soon be able to buy some of it back.

The State Land Office has its eyes on a few thousand acres up for sale by the federal Bureau of Land Management, The Santa Fe New Mexican reports. There may be limits to how much land the state can buy, but a state lawmaker has even pre-filed a bill for next year’s legislative session — Senate Bill 1 — that would set aside $250,000 to study whether such a purchase would be worthwhile.

Land ownership is a touchy subject in western states, where more than half the land belongs to the federal government, according to a 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service. Nevada owns the smallest share of its land — just 19 percent. New Mexico owns about 65 percent, with BLM owning more of its land than any other federal agency.

The nation’s 13 western states are home to 93 percent of federal land and have long sought to reclaim some of that land. Utah’s attorney general argued this fall that the government shutdown showed why his state can better manage the land within its borders, roughly two thirds of which are federally owned. The state last year even passed a law giving the federal government until the end of 2014 to turn over all public lands within its borders, but even Utah’s own legislative analysts have said that any such measure has “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”

Critics also argue that the public would suffer if the federal government agreed to such requests. “Rather than being managed for the benefit and use of the American public, these lands will instead be managed in whatever way each state wants to use them—which generally means maximizing private profits through mining, drilling, and other resource extraction,” the liberal Center for American Progress wrote in a March report.

For their part, state officials in New Mexico are upfront about their desire to turn a profit.

“We’re interested in high-value property that could be used for commercial purposes and would earn money for our beneficiaries,” State Land Commissioner Ray Powell told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The bill funding the study of whether the state should buy the land up for sale will be considered during the New Mexico legislature’s 30-day session, which begins on Jan. 21.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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