Article by Charlie McKee and Photos Courtesy of Sandy Feutz

In introducing the topic of the Third Thursday Public Forum on Jan. 16 at Western New Mexico University's (WNMU) Miller Library, Jamie Newton noted that it was President Richard Nixon who first coined the phrase, "Public Lands: The Breathing Space of a Nation." Newton, former San Francisco State University Professor of Psychology and current host of the local KURU 89.1 Community Radio Civil Discourse show, went on to quote Nixon as stating: "The public lands belong to all Americans, and…they should be safeguarded."

Newton noted that seven states (later corrected to eight) in the western United States (US) have recently been attempting to acquire public lands belonging to US taxpayers and that this issue crosses all political and socio-economic boundaries.

Newton introduced the panel of four speakers and acted as moderator of the evening's discussion. The forum panel consisted of: Dutch Salmon of Silver City, local author and lifelong hunter and fisherman in New Mexico; Cyndi Tuell, an Arizona attorney who specializes in land use and biodiversity; Michael B. Casaus, Silver City native and New Mexico State Director of The Wilderness Society; and Dr. Emma Bailey, Professor of Sociology at Western New Mexico University, past-president of the Association for Humanist Sociology and Associate Editor for the journal, Humanity and Society. The forum is co-hosted by WNMU's Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) organization and the Democratic Party of Grant County.

Each panelist gave his or her view of the topic, and Newton subsequently opened the forum to questions and answers from the audience. The panelists' perspectives were presented as follows:
• Dutch Salmon quoted President George H.W. Bush as proposing the idea that there should be "no net loss of wetlands." Salmon suggested this principle to govern the disposition of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) federal property in various states, i.e. "no net loss of open space." He gave the example of public lands that are located in more populated areas, where population and urban growth have encroached upon them, being traded for "wilder" State lands away from cities. Salmon also noted that prior history shows that land sold to the State of New Mexico quickly becomes privatized, citing the example of 4 million acres sold to the State in the 1950s and 1960s that was then promptly sold off to "well-heeled" private citizens by the State Commissioner of Public Lands. Salmon concluded that he could not understand why any citizen would want access to the nation's open space lands to be taken from the many and given to the privileged few.
• Cyndi Tuell quickly noted that she is an attorney practicing in the State of Arizona and is not licensed in New Mexico. However, she has witnessed Arizona's process of attempting to take over federal lands from the Forest Service and BLM, during which legislation was passed to do so but was subsequently vetoed by the Governor. The Governor vetoed the legislation because of the financial burden inherent in managing the lands. Tuell urged the audience to act in New Mexico to prevent the passing of similar legislation, because it will cost the State millions of dollars even if the legislation is challenged and overturned. She also emphatically stated that New Mexicans need to understand the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as well as New Mexico's State Enabling Act passed in 1910. Tuell reported that Congress is empowered by the Constitution to manage federal lands and cannot be contradicted by the states. However, the following states have been attempting to do so: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
• Emma Bailey raised the question of "What do we do?" with regard to protecting our public open space. Bailey proposed the concept that the state government has a duty to manage two sometimes-opposing factors: growth of the economy and protection of its citizenry. She opined that the rise of corporate capitalism since 1968 has thrown the balance too heavily in the direction of fostering economic growth over protection of citizens' rights, resulting in protection of the wealthy in their capitalism versus protection of the poor and their rights as citizens. Bailey stated that it is our job to tell the State that it is not protecting us and that "grass roots need to speak up" and call upon the State to protect the common good.
• Michael Casaus stated that he sees his job as New Mexico State Director of the Wilderness Society as a call to "inspire people to care for our wild lands." He noted that, as a Silver City native whose backyard is the Gila Wilderness established in 1924 as the first US wilderness area, he and those who live here are extremely lucky to have access to these spectacular public lands, regardless of ethnicity, religion, color of skin, or socio-economic background. Casaus reported that, in a recent bipartisan poll, 67% of New Mexicans consider themselves conservationists. He stated that there is strong support for public lands here and that studies over the last 40 years prove that public lands provide positive economic growth in the State. Casaus also emphasized that the audience should make an effort to understand what forces are behind these recent efforts to acquire open space lands, such as the legislation proposed by New Mexico Senator Richard Martinez, which was supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is funded by some of the largest and richest companies in the US, including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and AT&T.

After the panelists spoke, Newton opened the forum to questions from the audience. The major focus of these questions was, "What can we do?" In answer, the panelists unanimously stated that individual citizens need to take action; that it must be the people of New Mexico who speak loudly to politicians and lawmakers; that New Mexicans cannot afford to wait for organizations to act on their behalf; and that people must be public in their opinion and not stop until efforts to acquire and close off access to public land are blocked. The consequence of not doing this will cost New Mexico taxpayers millions. Casaus urged the audience to "play offense, not just defense." Salmon left the audience with the thought that "the more time you spend there [in open wilderness space], the more you will care…and we will prevail."

The Forum was then adjourned to dinner.

Live from Silver City

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