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Dunn says WSMR 'restrictions' cost state millions
LAS CRUCES - New Mexico is losing out on millions of dollars a year in potential revenue on state trust lands because of "restrictions" imposed by White Sands Missile Range, Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn alleged this week.
In a letter to U.S. Armed Services Committee Chairman William M. “Mac” Thornberry, Dunn requested that WSMR “immediately cease uncompensated restrictions on the use of trust lands in the call-up area and recognize New Mexico's sovereign right to manage the lands granted to New Mexico by seeking the highest and best use of these resources for the benefit of beneficiaries.”
WSMR has call-up areas to the north and west of the missile range that can be used for specific purposes. Restrictions placed on those approximately 3,000 acres have prevented the land office from maximizing their potential value to the state, Dunn said in his letter to Thornberry.
“These trust lands have revenue-generating potential from many uses including wind and solar energy development, telecommunications, dude ranches, oil and gas development and recreation,” Dunn said.
A study by the Land Office found that the estimated losses are some $7.5 million a year.
In 2004, former Land Commissioner Pat Lyons reached an agreement with the Department of Defense on both restrictions and lease payments in the call-up areas. But that agreement expired in 2006, explained Deputy Land Commissioner Laura Riley,
Negotiations since then have failed to produce an agreement. The land office is not prohibited from engaging in any of the activities listed by Dunn.
“WSMR does not restrict use or prevent leasing of state lands within the call-up areas,” WSMR spokesman Robert Carver said.
But there is a practical restriction, said Craig Johnson, land office assistant commissioner for commercial resources.
“The way WSMR is using that area is a de facto prohibition,” Johnson said. “You can’t put a wind farm out there if shrapnel is going to be flying.”
Renewed attention was brought to the issue in 2008 when the private company SunZia announced plans to build an electrical transmission line through part of the Northern call-up area. In his letter, Dunn noted a recent letter by Thornberry regarding SunZia.
“Your letter confirms that DOD intends to continue restricting the use of these lands in order to protect the military mission, thus depriving the beneficiaries of much-needed revenue,” Dunn said. “DOD should not be permitted to continue doing so without paying the state trust what is owed, as a matter of federal and state law.”
The two sides have been in negotiations since 2006.
“The State Land Office and WSMR staffs had discussions in the past about a Land Use Restrictions and Conditions (LURC) agreement, but no such agreement was reached,” Carver said. “We are aware of agreements between the ranchers and the State Land Office for the use of state lands. At the same time, WSMR has a compensation process in place for ranchers when they are required to evacuate for reasons of safety."
Dunn said it was unfair to the state for it not to be able to take full advantage of its lands.
“National security is important, but so are New Mexico’s schoolchildren, and my fiduciary responsibility is to protect the interests of the beneficiaries and generate income for them,” Dunn said. “I will explore other revenue-producing uses if WSMR and other military installations continually refuse to compensate the beneficiaries for the land use restrictions they are imposing by their operations.”