Land Commissioner? Stephanie!

By Lance Chilton

Stephanie Garcia Richard had just been endorsed by the Albuquerque Journal for reelection as State Land Commissioner when I spoke with her.

The Journal’s endorsement read: “Garcia Richard has been a good steward of public lands from fiduciary and environmental perspectives.”

I asked her how she could both be an environmentally conscious steward and also maximize oil revenues. “You’ve identified the crux of my job and its difficulty,” she said, adding that New Mexico’s constitution requires her to work “in the best interest of the state land trust” and preserve the trust for generations to come.

Regulation of use of the public lands requires that the State Land Office (SLO) make rules for sustainability and protection of the environment, the State Land Commissioner said, and most companies using public lands comply with the rules. Occasionally, she said, SLO has had to take recalcitrant users to court. Commissioner Garcia Richard pointed proudly to her office’s having remediated damage to our public lands, capping over 100 wells, and being certain that fracking does not endanger water supplies.

Our state land commissioner believes that, beyond her first term, her background as a teacher and as a 6-year legislator constitutes excellent preparation for her job. As a teacher, she said, “I know first-hand the importance of funding children’s education adequately.” In New Mexico, that includes as many dollars coming from the State Land Trust as possible. As a legislator, she sponsored numerous bills and memorials on a variety of subjects, many having to do with education or the environment.

One of the memorials she sponsored, 2018 House Joint Resolution 1, would have increased disbursements from the State Land Trust Fund for early childhood education, but it ran into a then-familiar roadblock. Asked to comment on this year’s Constitutional Amendment 1, which brings her previous work to the ballot after the Legislature finally passed its version, she was enthusiastic. “As an educator, this is as close as possible to a silver bullet, maximizing benefit to New Mexico’s children. It’s vital that we give children access during their early years to quality experiences; these are crucial to later success. And anyone who’s been a new parent knows the need for knowledge gained through home visitation, provided for in the amendment along with increased access to quality early education.”

Land Commissioner Garcia Richard noted that some previous holders of her position had drawn a red line between “state land” and “public land.” In essence the two are the same – doesn’t it make sense that the public would have access to them? Our current Land Commissioner has made it a priority to introduce New Mexicans to their public lands – “in many states, our beautiful public lands would be national or state parks,” she said, adding that economic benefits come from residents and tourists using our state lands. Her office has made state lands “Open for Adventure” through a campaign by that name.

Commissioner Garcia Richard does not agree with her rival, Republican Jefferson Byrd, when he says that royalty rates on resources taken from public land (chiefly oil and gas) should be adjusted based on market rates for those commodities. Companies are taking non-renewable resources out of our land, she said, and should be required to pay fully for them. At the same time, she has fostered within the State Land Office an Office of Renewable Energy with a mission to triple energy from wind and sun, “which we’ve done, and which will produce real revenue.”

“So many people didn’t believe we could hold industry accountable while protecting the health of over 13 million acres of public land and still make millions of dollars for public schools,” our State Land Commissioner said proudly. “We’ve initiated procedures that improved both our short- and long-term gain, increasing [royalty] rates to 20%, leasing less land now, but increasing effective royalty rate.” In concluding our interview, Commissioner Garcia Richard said, “I want to remind folks not to forget this office, as it is so important to our environment, our climate, and our children’s education.”

There could be no one better than Stephanie Garcia Richard to continue as State Land Commissioner.