Inside the Capitol

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Is Spaceport Paying Twice for Land?


Syndicated Columnist


      SANTA FE -- Is the state paying twice for spaceport land? The Albuquerque Journal thinks so. In an April 22 copyright story, the Journal reports that the Spaceport Authority will pay twice for the land it will use.

      It is true that the spaceport will pay the State Land Office for the use of state trust land and it will pay two ranching families that already are leasing that same land from the state.

      But both the state and the ranchers have valid claim to the land, so it is necessary for the spaceport to reach an agreement with both. In addition, the ranchers also own some of that land. The spaceport, essentially, will be subleasing the land from the ranchers.

      The deal came about at the insistence of State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons. He could have allowed the leases of the ranchers to expire and then lease the land to the spaceport. But Lyons, who also is a rancher, knew that would completely disrupt the lives of those ranching families.

      Ranching leases are renewed virtually automatically. Ranchers depend on that fact to make improvements on the leased land and to plan their lives. Pulling leases out from under them knocks them out of the ranching business.

      That is what happened to more than 100 ranching families just to the east on what is now White Sands Missile Range. In 1942, the federal government took all ranching property, including both leased land and deeded land owned by the ranchers, for a bombing range.

      It was only temporary, said the government. As soon as World War II was over, the ranchers would get their land back. But after the war, we needed a place to play with all those German V-2 rockets we had captured, along with the scientists who built them.

      So the government said it would be a longer wait and paid most of the ranchers a flat $1,000 for their property and grazing rights. Property values were much lower back then, but you couldn't buy a ranch for $1,000.

      Besides, these ranchers had been off their land for four years and needed that thousand bucks to live on. Being patriotic people, they had willingly suffered during the war, but now they were facing an indefinite banishment, which looked like it might last a lifetime.

      And now, 60 years later, it has been a lifetime. Many died disillusioned with the government they had loyally supported. Most fought all their lives for fair compensation from Congress or the courts.

   Our congressional delegation introduced legislation every two years, but were fought by every president, secretary of Defense and secretary of the Interior.

   Lyons didn't want to see a repeat of that sad story. State Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans agreed with Lyons' desire not to push the ranching families off the land they had worked for decades. An agreement was reached.

   There are many, especially in Albuquerque, who think the ranchers got too good a deal, but they'd be real happy not having rockets going off in their pastures, buildings popping up, traffic and forced evacuations from time to time. They'd rather preserve their current lifestyle.

   Financially, they're getting a good deal. They happen to be in the right place at the right time. But for those of us who watched the disruption of a hundred ranching families' lives, seeing two of their neighbors treated right is heart warming.

   The White Sands ranchers were evicted for national defense purposes. The eviction of the Cain and Wallin families doesn't have the same urgency and would have been one more argument against the spaceport.

   For those who would like a taste of what the White Sands ranchers went through, Edward Abbey's novel "Fire on the Mountain" tells the fictionalized story of real-life rancher John Prather, who lost his way of life and fought the government to his dying day.

MON, 6-04-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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