Now is the time to address conservation needs

By Mark Allison, New Mexico Wild Executive Director and Jesse Deubel, New Mexico Wildlife Federation Executive Director
Albuquerque Journal | November 29, 2021

The next few months are critical for New Mexico to make high-level spending decisions. While lawmakers rightly prioritize such issues as education and crime, land and water conservation funding suffers disproportionately from a lack of investment. Now is the time for that to change.

With an influx in federal stimulus dollars and a state budget surplus forecast for the upcoming Legislature, our leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put conservation dollars to work. Here are a few ways they can do that: Officials should immediately fund infrastructure projects to support our outdoor recreation economy and create jobs. The recent and successful New Mexico Outdoor Economics Conference in Farmington showed that our communities are hungry for opportunities to showcase what makes them stand out. And, with an abundance of beautiful landscapes, the Land of Enchantment has no shortage of places to visit. We continue to promote the state through multimillion-dollar tourism campaigns, but our local communities don’t have the infrastructure in place to accommodate an influx of visitors. Funding for trail signage and connectivity, trash cans, visitor centers, parking and staff has been lacking for years. This must be prioritized so locals and visitors can enjoy the outdoors safely.

Our State Parks Division is a prime example of what needs urgent attention. New Mexicans have flocked to our state parks to escape the pandemic, only to find them severely understaffed and maintained, thanks in part to dramatic budget cuts under the previous governor. Right now, we are sitting on an estimated $40 million maintenance backlog for our 35 state parks. Using federal stimulus dollars, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and legislative leaders could work together to wipe this out entirely, so New Mexicans can enjoy hunting, fishing, camping and exploring opportunities the way they expect and deserve. More than a dozen states have already moved to invest in state parks during the pandemic, putting us way behind.

Throughout the year, our organizations have identified funding opportunities for key state initiatives that will benefit all 33 counties. We believe the agencies that protect our land, water, air and wildlife are uniquely positioned to carry out these investments, but they need funding to do so. The governor and Legislature have shown tremendous leadership on environmental priorities, including the governor’s recent executive order to protect 30% of New Mexico’s land and water. Now they have an opportunity to see this work through by making conservation funding a priority.

This includes protecting watersheds that provide clean drinking water for our citizens, irrigation for our agricultural communities and to sustain native wildlife. As we struggle through historic drought, we should heed nature’s warnings and do more to protect our forests and watersheds by meeting the immediate needs of water source protection and wildlife habitat conservation.

We should also make surgical amendments to our existing Natural Heritage Conservation Act and develop a consistent revenue stream so local communities can unlock federal funding through the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund.

We’ve reached an inflection point for conservation and we have an unmatched moment to act. 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.

This guest column originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

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