Falling in line with several other counties in the West, Lincoln County commissioners adopted a resolution supporting legislation to enter into an interstate compact agreement with the federal government to cooperatively manage forested lands.
The only hesitation at the commission meeting last month was tied to whether citing "periods of extreme drought" as justification might place limits on the arrangement, and if supporting New Mexico entering into an interstate compact agreement with the federal government might interfere with legislation being considered in Congress.
Commissioner Mark Doth explained that three bills were introduced on the federal level that deal with the issue of placing more power in the hands of states.
"Funding is the question," he said of all three, which were under committee review. "Hopefully, there will be a meshing of the three or one will be stronger than the other."
Colorado House Bill 6089, introduced by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., proposes that in reaction to the bark beetle epidemic, drought, deteriorating forest health conditions, and high risk of wildfires on national forests and on Bureau of Land Management property, authorities were established in the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 to provide emergency measures for high-risk areas identified by states to allow the USFS and BLM to conduct good-neighbor cooperation with states to reduce wildfire risks, and for other purposes.
The bill, which would increase local control over forest management and wildfire prevention and allow states to designate high-risk areas and develop emergency hazardous fuels reduction projects for those areas, was referred to the Committee on Agriculture and to the Committee on Natural Resources.
In July, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands discussed the Depleting Risk from Insect Infestation, the Soil Erosion and Catastrophic Fire Act of 2012, H.R. 5960, which proposes expanding the authority of the USFS and BLM to enter agreements with states. The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also creates guidelines responding to insect infestations and disease on federal land.
Commissioner Kathryn Minter said none of the bills allow wilderness areas to be touched or permit clear cutting. Coming from Washington state, she knows that many species won't reseed without a clear cut. She also would want a provision to hold back some federal tax dollars to pay for firefighting, she said.
"This is a first step," Doth said.
"So the state would manage the forest, but the land still belongs to the federal government?" Commission Chairman Eileen Sedillo asked.
Not according to statehood enabling language, Minter replied.
"I'm 100 percent in favor, but the first paragraph references periods of extreme drought," Commissioner Tom Battin pointed out. "I would want the intent of the resolution to exist in perpetuity so states can take a permanent place in the question of managing forests, not just in drought."
The county attorney said the language could be seen as a limiting factor and could be removed, but commissioners changed their minds after County Clerk Rhonda Burrows said the language was adopted by the New Mexico Association of Counties affiliate and is being adopted intact by other entities to be presented to the association board. Minter also said she preferred that drought be mentioned.
Karyl Williams of Capitan raised the possibility that the resolution could cause problems if legislation subsequently is passed by Congress. She said widespread, bipartisan support is growing for states to assume a larger role in the care of the forests.
The legislation follows a Utah initiative to take back all public lands, more than 20 million acres, and benefits not given in an enabling act when it became a state, she said. In March, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, signed into law House Bill 148, which asks the federal government to give back the land. Bills patterned after Utah's are being prepared for filing next year in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico, according to wire reports.
"A time limit would be given to the federal government to get out and we (in New Mexico) would have control of over 40 percent of the state (that now is under federal control) minus the military bases." Williams asked commissioners to postpone a vote until the District 51 state representative could be scheduled to explain the initiative.
Burrows said she heard the argument before, but at the association meeting, "It was generally agreed upon this actually would not prohibit any further action for reclaiming of state rights, and entering into the compact with other Western states actually might help."
"It's just a resolution for the Legislature to look at for the greater picture," Sedillo said.
Commissioner Jackie Powell said the Coalition of Counties, like the other entities, is looking for more local input. "They are focused on endangered species," she said. "It's ridiculous to think we can all be covered by one (policy). Our forests are nothing like those in Washington state."
The adopted resolution states that periods of extreme drought continue in the West and the increase in wildfire fuel loads on forest lands have created a risk of catastrophic fire, damage to watersheds and long-term water supplies, as well as other threats to health, public safety and property.