Hunters angered with state's planned land swap

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By Lee Einer

Elk season is on at White’s Peak, but a proposed land swap may eventually remove some portion of that prime hunting ground from public use.

And that’s angering some hunters.

The State Land Office is proposing to give a portion of the White’s Peak land to the Express UU Bar Ranch and the Stanley Ranch in exchange for other land. The White’s Peak land, opponents say, has been used by area residents for hunting and herb gathering for generations. They fear that hunting that land would become a privilege of the rich if it were given to the ranches.

The Express UU Bar Ranch, near Cimarron, offers hunting on its land — for a hefty price. The ranch’s website advertises a 2009 bull elk hunt for the discount price of $8,650. That represents 25 percent off the regular price of $11,500 per person. The ranch also advertises spring turkey hunts for $1,500 per hunter.

Ed Olona, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said his group opposes the trade.

“The 41,000 acres of state trust land in the White’s Peak area is land that the poor hunt,” Olona said, “where anyone can hunt that can afford an $85 elk license or permit. There aren’t many people in New Mexico who can afford that eight or nine thousand dollar price for an elk hunt.”  

Olona said the land that the state would get in trade was not worth what it proposes to give up.

“The land that they would be trading is between Ocaté and Wagon Mound,” Olona said. “There’s nothing there. Nothing but pasture and a hill. That’s what the State Land Office wants to trade for elk, deer, bear, mountain lion, turkey. Does that sound like a fair trade?”

Olona also said the attempts by ranchers to take possession of the White’s Peak lands have been going on for decades. Olona referred, in part, to a seven-year legal battle that ensued after the Express UU Bar Ranch gated off the road to the state trust lands, effectively denying the people of New Mexico access to the area.

Then-Attorney General Tom Udall sued the ranch in 1998, and the ensuing legal battle went all the way to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, ending with a decision against the ranch.

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Recently, Las Vegas resident Max O. Trujillo II provoked the wrath of State Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons by writing a letter to the editor to the Optic denouncing the proposed land swap.  

In it, Trujillo characterized the proposed deal as a closed-door transaction and said Lyons “has no regard for the common people of the state of New Mexico and is easily persuaded by the rich, corporate landowners.”

In a written response, Commissioner Lyons blasted Trujillo.

“Mr. Trujillo has never bothered to contact the Land Office to inquire about the details of the exchange.” Lyons said.  “Instead, he is making false statements, assumptions and manipulating the truth, which is reckless and careless.”

Lyons defended the rights of his agency.

“State trust lands are not open to the public,” Lyons said. “The portion of White’s Peak that is designated as trust land is under the exclusive control of the State Land Office. Anybody — and that includes you, Mr. Trujillo — wanting to access trust lands must have a permit or they are trespassing.”

Lyons and State Land Office spokeswoman Kristen Haase had some hard words for those who hunt White’s Peak.

“Some sportsmen who hunt in the area, like Mr. Trujillo, have always thought of White’s Peak as their own private playground,” Lyons said.

And Haase recently told an Optic reporter, speaking of those who oppose the proposed land swap, “They clearly don’t understand the situation. They’ve been wandering around the hills for all these generations, and back in the late 1800s, that land was designated as trust land.”

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Brian Henington, the State Land Office’s deputy director and project manager for the White’s Peak land swap, said the trade gives value for value and is necessary because of the complex land ownership situation in the White’s Peak area.

Henington said the area is a checkerboard of state and private ownership, which has resulted in hunters with state permits trespassing on private lands as well as hunters on private ranches trespassing on public lands.

Henington said the goal is consolidation of the state’s land holdings into a contiguous area, which can be better managed by the state, and that the exchange plan would actually open up public access from the Ocaté side.  

Ideally, Henington said, the Land Office wants the area to be like the Valle Vidal, a federal preservation area. But the state has to consolidate the state land and make it manageable before that can happen, he said.

Henington said there is a small area — about 2,200 acres of the roughly 8,746 acres the Land Office is planning to acquire — that is south of Highway 120, but that the land is prime elk and antelope country.  

“I’ve been all over that country,” Henington said, “and I’ve seen elk and antelope everywhere. We’re not giving up prime land, we’re gaining prime land — we’re getting water that we didn’t have before, we’re getting stock tanks. I’ve beaten up my boots walking all over that country, and it’s good land.”

Henington said the Land Office will be letting go of 11,123 acres of White’s Peak in the exchange, with 7,205 acres going to the Stanley Ranch and 3,431 acres going to the Express UU Bar ranch, but that both of those transactions are open for bid and the respective ranches may not get the land if someone outbids them.

Henington also said that, if the land swap doesn’t go through, the Land Office may resolve the issue by revoking the state Game and Fish easement for White’s Peak, effectively placing the land completely off limits to hunters.

He said the Land Office doesn’t have to hold any public hearings on the issue.