New Mexico

State Legacy Fund would help draw federal dollars to conservation programs

From Scott Wyland, The Santa Fe New Mexican

At least $1 billion in federal conservation funding is available to help New Mexico with everything from restoring watersheds and protecting endangered species to supporting ecosystems more resilient to climate change.

Most of this eludes the state because it lacks the resources to do so.

Some state leaders, environmental groups and corporations are hoping the legislature will approve a $75 million fund to draw federal money for a medley of state conservation programs from among a half-dozen agencies.

A bipartisan bill establishing the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund is slated to be presented this week — not to be confused with the proposed $50 million bond of a similar name that stalled in the legislature last year.

“Our goal in bringing this together is to ensure that these programs have their own state-level funding stream so they can leverage literally billions of dollars that are available at the federal level that New Mexico is not fully utilizing,” Brittany Fallon, Senior Policy Manager for Lands at Western Resource Advocates, during an online conference.

Fallon described the bill as “elegant” because it doesn’t create new government programs and bureaucracy, instead funneling money into existing programs that are “underfunded or never funded or sporadically funded.”

Thirteen states have established such funds, allowing them to draw significantly more federal money than New Mexico can, Fallon said.

The state’s matching share varies but can be as high as $3 for every $1 the state brings in, she said.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe; Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces; and Republican Senator Steve Neville of Farmington are co-sponsoring the bill.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham mentioned the Legacy Fund in her State of the State address and said it was an excellent example of how her administration is doubling down on its commitment to the environment.

The money will be used to “create sustainable funding for government programs that protect our environment, address issues like drought and water scarcity, and tackle the roots of climate change,” the governor said.

The state’s River Stewardship Program, Healthy Soil Program and Outdoor Equity Fund are among the programs set to be ramped up.

By bringing in more federal dollars, this fund would improve programs that support the state’s agricultural industry, whose members make up a tiny fraction of the population but “feed and clothe the entire world,” said Debbie Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Conservation Districts .

“Many of these programs will help create a lot of jobs and support the state’s economy,” Hughes said. “You’re not just improving soil health, you’re improving habitat for wildlife, rangelands, grasslands — those ecosystems for these different types of species.”

The fund will also support the restoration of many watersheds and acequias, including those in northern New Mexico affected by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, said Garrett VeneKlasen, Northern Conservation Director for New Mexico Wild.

“This is so much about pouring state money into federal funds to create really robust and most importantly, permanent recovery programs,” VeneKlasen said, “whether we’re trying to restore badly burned watersheds or doing preventative thinning.” Many of our watersheds are not holding water or are not delivering water very efficiently.”

It’s important work that costs a lot of money, he added.

The money would expand the Outdoor Equity Fund so it can make the outdoors more accessible to children who are traditionally cut off from such experiences — and encourage not just a love of nature but conservation, said Josue De Luna Navarro of the Semilla Project .

“Nature has always been predominantly a very white space,” said De Luna Navarro. “The Outdoor Equity Fund was the first seed in our organization…to begin providing that bridge for our youth to have access to the great outdoors.”

Fallon said she’s heard some lawmakers are planning to ask for $100 million or more for the Legacy Fund.

She’d like to see double or triple that amount, she said, so the state can tap into more federal infrastructure dollars and Anti-Inflation Act funds before they run out.

New Mexico has already missed a big bite from the apple because it didn’t have matching money last year, she added.

Jake McCook, a policy adviser specializing in environmental protection issues, said lawmakers should be encouraged to think big when deciding the pot of federal money.

“When will we have this opportunity again?” McCook said. “Now the moment has come and we are in an existential crisis over water issues and habitat issues. Things are broken really badly, and those things sometimes take decades to soften.”

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