State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard answers questions Monday evening from the audience during Voices of Los Alamos at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richards speaks at Voices of Los Alamos Monday evening at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard was the guest speaker at Monday evening’s Voices of Los Alamos. She began her talk by explaining that land commissioner is a constitutionally created office just like the attorney general or the secretary of state and that she is the first woman to serve in the position in the history of the state.
“You may ask yourself, does that even matter and people ask me that all the time. I will give you descriptions and I’ll let you decide whether or not it matters,” she said adding that for the first time, in the state’s history the land commissioner has a majority of women on its leadership staff.
“I am able to appoint about a dozen folks to positions that are part of my executive leadership team and I’ve got a woman who is non-binary; she is Native from Laguna and Mescalero – she’s my tribal liaison. I have another woman who’s LGBTQ who does my communications. I have another woman who is Taren Nix who most of you know who is my deputy. She has a very unorthodox background, very unorthodox approach but very effective,” Garcia Richard said. “They make up a small part of my larger leadership team and we have turned the office 180 degrees. The Land office has never seen anything like this leadership team and what we are pursuing.”
She said the same team that is doing the “Surviving R. Kelley” documentaries is doing a “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” documentary series and had contacted the Land Office. She said the woman on the phone asked her why she decided to pull the plug on the Jeffrey Epstein lease.
“She asked, ‘What made it different for you than for any previous land commissioner’, because the lease between Epstein and the Land Office went back to the 90s. The last time that lease was renewed was after he had already been convicted. He was a known convict and the lease was renewed with his company and the Land Office,” Garcia Richard said. “So it took a woman with her team of women to come in and say no, no more, we’re putting a stop to this. And we found a way to cancel that lease. So yeah, it matters. Representation matters.”
She said it’s important for her in her daily life in the Land Office to keep in mind her two kids and to never do anything that they would not look up to her for because she’s representing the first woman in that office and that means a great deal to her.
Garcia Richard noted that the Land Office was created more than 100 years ago to care for the state trust fund and that 13 million acres was deeded to the state by the federal government to use to develop revenue to pay for schools, universities and hospitals. She said in the beginning the reliance was on logging, then mining and then oil and gas development which is now the state’s primary revenue generator.
She said the Land Commissioner is the individual that’s responsible for stewarding and protecting state trust lands which are the state’s heritage.
“I have the same trust obligations as any trustee that looks over even the trust of wealth. All the decisions that are made at the Land Office have to comport with trust obligations that are legally set out,” Garcia Richard said. “That being said there is a lot of autonomy and a lot of latitude in what we can do and what we can impact and a lot of the things the people in here care about and that’s the reason you come to Voices every month, we can actually have an impact on at the Land Office.”
She said unfortunately one of the first things she learned was that she doesn’t have the authority to ban fracking, for example.
“And I don’t know that I’d want to, because that operation at this point in time brings in money for our schools. But I can ensure that those practices are done on state trust land in a way that the industry is held to task. I can make sure that as companies are making money off our resources, that they are doing so responsibly and we are ensuring that our beneficiaries are getting every single dime and penny that is due them,” Garcia Richard said.
She said the office has decided to take a different approach one
“We are wanting to take a cold-hearted look at what is appropriate for the land that we manage,” she said.
Garcia Richard said the area around Chaco National Park is sacred to nearly every single Native group in the state.
“But it’s not just the National Park. There’s the entire landscape around Chaco that has cultural properties and sites that are dear, sacred, even spiritual to our Native brothers and sisters here in New Mexico. It also has a great mineral resource, so there are wells and drilling and pump jacks in neighborhoods in the northwest part of our state near schools, near sacred sites. In fact, some sacred sites have been destroyed by some of this activity,” Garcia Richard said. “So one of the first things I did was to go in and using the buffer the feds use, we created a 10-mile buffer around that Chaco landscape and said we are not going to develop oil and gas in this buffer zone. You would have thought I had put a bullet through the head of industry. I didn’t.”
She said the Land Office still makes a billion dollars.
“They’re still pumping away in the Permian Basin, but we felt that area around Chaco Canyon was too precious and had already been too damaged to continue further”, Garcia Richard said, adding that alternate revenue generators need to be found that that are “not so damaging”.
Garcia said a large part of the state landscape is water but that water has never been contemplated by the Land Office as a resource until more recently.
“In fact you could get your drilling permit from the state engineer and you get permission from the Land Office to drill a well on state land but you didn’t have to pay for that water in the past. There wasn’t a price per barrel. You just rented out the land and then you just sucked up the water out of the aquifer. We know now and we should have known then that that can impact all of the water in the area,” she said. She said the Land Office is taking a hard look at fresh water use, especially in fracking, because the ratio of barrels of fresh water it takes to push one barrel of oil out of the ground is pretty high, especially in the Permian Basin.
“I can’t ban fracking but I can prevent our fresh water from being used to frack. They can recycle their water – they should be recycling their water, because tons of water come up out of the ground when they frack and that actually becomes a waste product. So guess what they do with it? They reinject it back into the ground. They take our precious, clean, pure water that we rely on, make it into a waste product and reinject it. I have problems with every step of that process. What we are trying to do is incentivize industry as much as possible away this by incentivize them to recycle,” Garcia Richard said.
Another issue she raised was that the Land Office at present does not require an archaeological survey to be done before land is disturbed.
“The Land Office is completely autonomous so it is up to the land commissioner. We have decided to undertake the Cultural Properties Rule which requires an archaeological survey and requires the tribal liaison to consult with any tribes that have special interest in the area in question,” she said. “New Mexico is indigenous land. The State Land Office manages 13 million acres of land that used to be indigenous land. So if we are doing what is right by our Native brothers and sisters, we will include them in discussions about that land.”
Garcia Richard said she feels like her number one job, what she was elected to do is to ensure that there is some sort of revenue stream in years to come.
“Because no matter what your feelings are about the extractive industry, about fossil fuels, they are finite. And yes, I know the oil and gas industry told me there’ll always be somebody scratching at the ground down there. And I say fine, let them scratch at the ground but it’s not always going to be the billion dollars we’re used to, that we’ve come to rely on,” she said. “So we need to, and we needed to do it 10 years ago, yesterday, to look for the revenue that is going to make up that fossil fuel revenue that we will not always have because it’s a finite resource.”
Garcia said the Land Office is trying to incentivize the development of state land for renewables and that if community solar was ever passed in this state it would help tremendously.
She said she just spent two days with all the border folks coming up and that they were not talking about the border wall, but border trade.
“It’s billions of dollars of potential revenue at the border. New Mexico is now leading the nation in growth of exports to other countries and growth of exports to Mexico because of Santa Teresa, right in little old New Mexico.
Garcia Richard said there’s plenty of potential there for revenue.
“Hemp production, hemp processing, hemp facilities. It takes a lot of water. We haven’t solved that one yet, but it would be a boom for us in revenue. So, we’re looking at all these things,” she said.
Asked about land at the U.S. Mexico border, Garcia Richards said landowners in Texas are furious because their land is being eminent-domained because of the border wall. She discussed the Roosevelt Easement which gives the federal government of about 60 feet on both sides of the border.
“We don’t have control over the Roosevelt Easement. We can deny applications, which we have done, from the contractors that are constructing the wall who want to park their equipment or store their materials on state trust land. So we can influence the building of the wall in that way by not allowing any of that work to take place on state trust land,” she said.
Garcia Richard said there is one mile of state trust land near the Bootheel where there is no Roosevelt Easement.
“They would have to come and take that land, which they could do. The land is given to us by the feds, they could take it back. But that will happen over my dead body. I will literally go down there physically and lay myself down on that one mile land of state trust land so there’s one mile (of the wall) that’s not built,” she said.