While the state land commissioner in New Mexico is often overlooked, the office is getting more attention heading into the 2018 election thanks to the contentious politics of public lands that have hit a fever pitch in the last year.
The Taos County Democratic Party hosted a forum Saturday (Dec. 9) for Democrats vying for the party's nomination.
Garrett VeneKlasen, a Taos Canyon resident and longtime environmental organizer, and Stephanie Garcia Richard, a state legislator representing Los Alamos since 2013, attended the forum. State Sen. George Muñoz, who represents Cibola, McKinley and San Juan Counties, could not attend because of family emergency, according to emcee Darien Fernandez, president of the local party and a candidate for mayor of Taos.
VeneKlasen and Garcia Richard positioned themselves as strong advocates for renewable energy, pushing for a transition in New Mexico's energy economy, which is closely tied to oil and gas revenues.
The State Land Office operates independently of the governor or Legislature and is responsible for the management and development of millions of acres of state-owned land. Much of that land is leased to the oil and gas companies and earnings from those leases pay for New Mexico public schools and universities.
The state land commissioner is also responsible for land trades. Aubrey Dunn, the current commissioner and a Republican, has several trades currently underway.
Throughout 2017, Dunn has touted a plan to swap land between his office and the Bureau of Land Management. Under the proposed swap, 43,000 acres of state trust land that is located within the boundaries of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument would be traded for about 78,000 acres of BLM land in 13 other counties, in part to consolidate holdings within the monument.
The trade was put on hold over the summer during the federal review of national monuments. Dunn, who narrowly beat the Democratic incumbent in 2014, criticized the delay soon after the review was announced, worried that the finishing touches may be left to a different commissioner.
When asked about their support for the land swap, both candidates deflected a direct answer. Garcia Richard said although she wasn't familiar with the swap, "the issue very often is understanding if [New Mexico is] giving more than we're getting."
She clarified in a Dec. 11 email that she would "continue the process to ensure that the land within the [monument] is protected from future development by extractive industries" and would "work with local communities on a win-win solution that would allow for the exchange to include land that could be used for renewable energy...and eco-tourism."
During the forum, VeneKlasen said the land exchange in Taos County is partially tied to a land swap on the southern border that he said could expedite the construction of a border wall proposed by President Trump; VeneKlasen said he adamantly opposes that portion of the swap.
He clarified in a Dec. 12 email that while he opposes the land swap involving parcels along the southern border, he wants the Río Grande del Norte made whole. He is "favorable to fast tracking the land swap to ensure that the entire monument is managed under the purview and guidelines of the monument's protections. The State Land Office lands within the monument are managed specifically to benefit the state's beneficiaries which could jeopardize their ecological and cultural integrity."
Muñoz told The Taos News via email Dec. 11 that "as an experienced businessman and owner of horse and cattle, I would not complete the deal."
Muñoz said he thinks the Río Grande del Norte National Monument land exchange could impact grazing permittees because of issues around renewing leases and the costs of those leases. "This particular land swap could have far reaching, negative implications for many New Mexico families," he said.
Democrats will face off in the June 5 primary and the winner of that contest will go on to the general election in November.