Supporters hail passage, signing of measure creating Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund

Fund will serve as dedicated, long-term funding stream for various projects

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
The creation of the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund, as provided for in the recently adopted Senate Bill 9, will provide funding for a variety of programs designed to protect the state's waterways, forests and soils.
  • Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 9, known as the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund bill, last week.
  • It has been described as the largest land and water conservation investment New Mexico has ever made.
  • Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, sponsored the measure, along with Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Nathan Small, D-Doña Ana County.

FARMINGTON — Although he has been a state senator for nearly 20 years and is a retired real estate appraiser, Steve Neville retains a sharp interest in soil and water conservation from his days as a staff member at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, when he worked on issues related to farming and ranching.

So he couldn’t help but be enormously pleased last week when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 9, known as the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund bill, which has been described as the largest land and water conservation investment New Mexico has ever made. Neville, a Republican from Farmington, sponsored the measure, along with Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Nathan Small, D-Doña Ana County.

“That’s been about four or five years, probably, that I’ve been working on it,” Neville said, recalling the measure’s long road to passage.

“… It’s always been a yo-yo thing. To finally get the bill through the Legislature and get it signed (by the governor) was a big deal.”

The bill’s chances of passage this session were greatly enhanced by the budget surplus lawmakers had at their disposal, a boon of the oil and gas industry operating in the state's Permian Basin region. The measure received an appropriation of $100 million, creating a dedicated, long-term funding stream for land and water conservation, land acquisition, outdoor recreation projects and other programs.

The governor supported the bill throughout the session and cited the long-term impact the creation of the fund will have on New Mexico in a statement released by her office after she signed the measure.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

“This first-of-its kind fund will provide resources to protect and preserve the lands and waters that New Mexicans so treasure,” she said. “By dedicating increased and stable supports for critical conservation programs, we will ensure that New Mexico continues to be the Land of Enchantment for generations to come.”

Neville said the other element that contributed significantly to the bill’s success this session was the coalition of organizations that worked to secure its passage, which was accomplished with broad, bipartisan support. That list included the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust, the New Mexico Land Conservancy, Conservation Voters of New Mexico and The Audubon Society.

“All of the players came together,” he said, noting that such cohesiveness had been missing in the past when he tried in vain to shepherd earlier versions of the bill through the Legislature. “The difference this time is, they all agreed to keep their hands off everybody else’s program.”

Neville said the measure will allow the state to access federal matching funds for a wide variety of programs, something New Mexico has never been able to do before without a dedicated, permanent funding source.

“We’ve probably been leaving tens of millions of dollars in federal money on the table,” he said.

An earlier version of the bill this session was funded at $200 million, but that figure was cut in half by the time it was approved by the House and made its way to the governor’s desk. Neville said he was not disappointed by that, adding he had been expecting a reduction.

Steve Neville

“One-hundred million (dollars) is plenty good to get us going,” he said.

The $100 million set aside for the measure will be divided into two funds. Half of it will be assigned to an expendable fund to be allocated to existing state programs in Fiscal Year 2024, which begins on July 1 of this year. The six state agencies that will receive funding are the Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Game and Fish, the Environment Department, the Economic Development Department and the Department of Cultural Affairs.

The other half of the money will be deposited into a permanent fund, which is designed to generate interest over time, with that money being distributed through the expendable fund after it reaches a certain level.

Neville said he and other supporters of the bill received verbal commitments from other lawmakers to add $50 million a year to that permanent fund until it reaches a balance of $300 million — an amount that supporters believe would allow the fund to become self-sustaining.

Earlier versions of the bill authored by Neville that failed to get through the Legislature were funded at much lower levels, he noted, starting at $25 million and eventually being whittled down to $1.8 million. But even that relatively small figure could not muster enough legislative support to get the bill over the finish line.

“It was almost nothing in the past,” he said.

Passage of the measure was hailed as a significant step forward for New Mexico by representatives of many of the groups that supported it.

Judy Calman, the New Mexico policy director for The Audubon Society, said the funding would provide essential, far-reaching benefits for birds.

“Riparian restoration through the River Stewardship program, as well as habitat improvement projects through the Game and Fish Department, will give birds critical help as they navigate the ongoing impacts of climate change,” she stated in a news release.

Emily Wolf, the New Mexico senior program coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association, described the creation of the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund as a once-in a-generation opportunity to protect the state’s parks and communities from wildfires, floods and droughts, and safeguard urban and rural water supplies.

“Our parks are home to many vital water resources, ecosystems and wildlife, but these know no boundaries and depend on a system of healthy, interconnected and well-managed public and private lands,” she said in a news release.

Debbie Hughes, the executive director of the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts, said the state’s agriculture industry will benefit from the fund that goes directly to NMDA because recurring funds for on-the-ground projects finally will be available.

“This fund will also help the soil and water conservation districts apply for federal funding that usually requires a non-federal match,” she stated in a news release.

Lesli Allison, the executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, said the folks her organization supports know that New Mexico’s fate is directly tied to the land and its natural resources.

“The Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund is a visionary investment in our shared future,” she stated in a press release.

Neville said he believes the creation of the fund could be especially beneficial to San Juan County, as the money could be used to fund such projects as removal of invasive species like the red cedar and Russian olive trees from riparian areas, fire mitigation, flood control and soil remediation.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610

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