Every year, communities across New Mexico, especially in rural regions, lose the opportunity to leverage state and federal funding for local land and watershed conservation projects. This contributes to inequities in the quality of outdoor spaces and water resources and access to them.
Millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Great American Outdoors Act could come into the state. The Great American Outdoors Act permanently directed $900 million a year to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). New Mexico expects to get $5 million annually from the LWCF.
The LWCF has two funding pathways, for site improvements and for site acquisition. A New Mexico law that funds conservation easements and land restoration, the Natural Heritage Conservation Act (NHCA), needs to be amended to allow the state to acquire lands and waters, not just improve existing sites.
In the upcoming 2022 legislative session, Rep. Kristina Ortez (HD 42) is sponsoring narrow, targeted changes to the NHCA that would allow for acquisitions. In addition, a one-time special appropriation to the Natural Heritage Conservation Fund will allow the state to take full advantage of federal programs and federal matching funds. Any state funding provided to NHCA will leverage at least the same amount in federal dollars through the LWCF, farm bill programs, and infrastructure programs.Funding new land and water acquisition in addition to improving existing parks, trails, wildlife management areas, and voluntary conservation easements and restoration projects are all key to expanding the state's outdoor recreation economy and the jobs it supports.
To the Members of the New Mexico Legislature:
I am writing to urge you to support efforts to amend the Natural Heritage Conservation Act (NHCA) to allow for acquisition of lands and waters and for a one-time special appropriation that would help fully leverage available federal funds.
Other states, including Colorado, Montana and Arizona, direct state funding to grant programs like NHCA that help local governments access more federal conservation money by providing the mandatory matching funds under Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), farm bill programs, and infrastructure funding under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure legislation.
The LWCF has provided limited money for parks, trails, and outdoor recreation projects in every county in New Mexico for more than 50 years. Now, New Mexico is expected to receive about $5 million from the fund each year, but many communities can't secure the matching funds to access this grant money.
With an influx in federal stimulus dollars and a state budget surplus for the upcoming Legislature, you have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put conservation dollars to work in every part of the state, stimulating local jobs and income.
Funding will help clear the backlog of maintenance and repair at parks across the state, problems that were highlighted and worsened by the heavy usage of state and local parks and trails during the pandemic in 2020. Funding will also support watershed restoration and protection projects and increased purchases of very popular volunteer conservation easements that help family farmers keep land away from conversion to development.
The recent and successful New Mexico Outdoor Economics Conference in Farmington showed that our communities are hungry for opportunities to showcase what makes them special. And, with an abundance of beautiful landscapes, the Land of Enchantment has no shortage of places to visit. More than a dozen states have already moved to invest in state parks during the pandemic, putting New Mexico way behind.
Adding acquisition authority to the state law and boosting grant funding could help more communities enjoy new parks and open spaces. The state does not have any dedicated conservation funding distribution or revenue source, which creates a long-term problem finding a match for programs like LCWF. Communities in greatest need of that funding – mainly rural communities and tribes – are also the least likely to have that match.
We've reached a turning point. Now is the time to bolster the resilience of our forests and waters, invest in our infrastructure, and connect people to our great outdoors and natural heritage. If we're going to keep the balloons in the sky, the cavern doors open or the gateway to the Rocky Mountains healthy, we must see the value in conservation funding.
Protecting our natural heritage is one of the core values that brings all New Mexicans together. Please support robust conservation funding and ensure the NHCA's ability to protect our lands, waters, and resources for future generations.