Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Land trade between BLM, state would protect land, help Santa Teresa

By Diana M. Alba Sun-News reporter

Article Launched: 02/19/2008

LAS CRUCES — The federal government is proposing a multi-pronged land trade with the state that would free up land for a Union Pacific railroad facility in Santa Teresa, secure acreage for recreation in mountains near Las Cruces and protect habitat for a threatened bird species near Roswell.

Under the proposal, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would give the New Mexico State Land Office a total of about 13,300 acres near Santa Teresa and on Las Cruces' West Mesa. In exchange, the land office would give up some 9,400 acres west of Roswell and 3,900 acres in several mountain ranges near Las Cruces.

The BLM began discussions with the state land office more than a year ago, after Union Pacific had expressed interested in acquiring land near its track in Santa Teresa, said Tim Sanders, assistant district manager for the BLM's Las Cruces office.

Union Pacific is seeking to re-locate shipping yards in downtown El Paso to Santa Teresa. It plans to build a $150 million fueling and freight-shipping center at the new site.

Sanders said the BLM first proposed to trade the Santa Teresa parcels to the state, which will work out a sale or lease to Union Pacific. He said the BLM doesn't often lease land for commercial purposes and isn't well-quipped to do so, reasons it didn't want to deal directly with the company.

"The state land office has a greater ability to make land available for commercial and industrial uses than the BLM," he said. "The federal process are pretty complicated and lengthy, so it's sometimes easier to transfer it to the state and let them work out commercial leases."

In addition, Sanders said, the agency preferred arranging a trade with the state because it wanted to obtain state trust lands it had been eyeing around Las Cruces.

"It gives us a vehicle to acquire those important recreation and wildlife lands," he said.

Deputy Land Commissioner Dennis Garcia said the land office is interested in acquiring the acreage because of Union Pacific's plans.

"We'll be picking up some land in the Santa Teresa area, which in the future will have a better use than what's there now," he said.

The state land office would gain about 3,400 acres in Santa Teresa. About 1,800 acres of that is being sought by Union Pacific.

Sanders said so many parcels are being proposed overall because it's more efficient for the BLM to make several trades at one time, rather than piecemeal. He said the total value of state land being traded must roughly equal that of the federal land and each BLM parcel will undergo an environmental review before it's traded. He emphasized none of the proposals are set in stone.

Around Las Cruces

Also as part of the trade, the BLM would give the state land office about 3,500 acres on Las Cruces' West Mesa and a 320-acre parcel east of the city. Those acreages would likely become available for development eventually.

Sanders said the BLM identified property on the West Mesa to trade to the land office so the agency could gain other recreational land.

"We know there has been a lot of discussion about encouraging growth to the west and taking some of the pressure off the farmland," he said. "The best way to accommodate growth is to transfer land out of our ownership."

Garcia said the parcels near Las Cruces were selected by the land office to acquire partly because they're in the likely path of development. He said the office also wants to consolidate state trust land.

Garcia said the land office has had no discussions with potential developers about the parcels because the land exchange with the BLM is only in the beginning stages.

A proposal to trade a 320-acre BLM parcel east of Las Cruces has drawn criticism from some local officials because it's east of Weisner Road, a north-south route some believe should be the easternmost boundary of the city's growth.

But Sanders said the parcel is identified for possible sale or exchange in a 1993 land-use plan that guides BLM decisions. In addition, he said, the federal government in the trade would gain a nearby parcel that's about twice the size.

"There's a lot more coming into federal ownership than is going out," he said.

Las Crucen Steve Fischmann, a member of the Quality Growth Alliance of Doña Ana County, said he's been briefed by the BLM about the land trade plans. He said parcels identified for both development and added protection appear to make sense.

"It looks fairly well thought through," he said. "All in all, we're feeling very positive about the direction things are headed."

Lands the BLM would gain in Doña Ana County because of the trade are:

• 1,239 acres surrounding the Robledo Mountains temporary wilderness area, northwest of Las Cruces.

• 407 acres around Box Canyon, west of Las Cruces, sought because of its proximity to a BLM-controlled dam.

• 1,280 acres for recreation in the Doña Ana Mountains, north of Las Cruces.

• 935 acres near the Organ Mountains for recreation.

• 77 acres for wildlife near the Rio Grande in the Fort Selden area.

Sand Ranch

Also under the proposal, Sanders said the BLM would gain about 9,400 acres of state trust land that are part of the Sand Ranch west of Roswell.

The ranch, located in Chaves County, includes a mix of federal, state and private land. Las Cruces developer Philip Philippou owns some parcels within the ranch.

Sanders said the BLM selected the land to provide habitat for the lesser prairie chicken, a declining bird species.

Public input

The BLM is seeking public comments on the proposed land exchange through March 26. An open house about the proposal is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at the agency's Las Cruces office, 1800 Marquess St.

The agency, after a request from Doña Ana County commissioners, will hold a second public input session in the southern part of the county. A date hasn't been set.

Diana M. Alba can be reached at dalba@lcsun-news.com

The proposal

Land that would transfer from the BLM to the state land office:

Doña Ana County:

• West Mesa - 3,522 acres

•East Mesa - 320 acres

• Santa Teresa - 1,851 acres for an eventual Union Pacific facility and 1,578 acres in additional state trust land

State trust land that would transfer from the state land office to the BLM:

Doña Ana County:

• Robledo Mountains - 1,239 acres

• Box Canyon - 407 acres

• Doña Ana Mountains - 1,280 acres

• Organ Mountains - 935 acres

• Seldon Canyon - 77 acres

Chaves County:

• Sand Ranch area - 9,360 acres

Source: U.S. Bureau of Land Management

If you comment

A public comment period about a proposed land trade between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico State Land Office is under way through March 26. Submit comments to:• nm_darmpea@blm.gov • BLM Las Cruces District Office, c/o Lorraine Salas, 1800 Marquess St. Las Cruces, 88005

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