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Beyond Borders: From Confrontation to Collaboration

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When we take care of our land, the land takes care of us! Promoting open, honest, and direct lines of communication between the New Mexico State Land Office and our Tribal Nations creates significant opportunities to create economic prosperity, protect important cultural sites, and protect the health and productivity of our neighboring lands.

As the elected Land Commissioner for the State of New Mexico, I am responsible for administering nine million acres of surface and 13 million acres of subsurface lands that were granted to New Mexico by the federal government. These lands were placed in trust for the purpose of generating revenue for public schools, universities and hospitals—over the last three and a half years alone we have raised over $2.3 billion for these important institutions—supporting important public services and savings taxpayers money.

Parts of these State Trust Lands were formerly tribal lands and are of significant cultural, religious and historical importance to tribal communities. For this reason, I have made a commitment to consult with Tribal Nations on projects that may impact their communities before we enter into any long-term leases, land exchanges, or sales.

By working closely with pueblo governors, tribal councils and other tribal officials, we are able to better protect significant sites and ensure there are not adverse, long-term legacy issues that will negatively impact the tribal communities, the land, and native and migratory wildlife.

I have worked hard to foster relationships that make it simple and easy to communicate, and have done so not only with tribal communities within the geographic borders of New Mexico, but also with tribes beyond the state who have important cultural and religious ties to cultural properties in New Mexico. Planning renewable energy projects, which often entail large tracks of land, are an example of some of the areas where this consultation occurs.

I also believe that meaningful consultation and collaboration should entail more than last minute notifications by our agency about proposed projects. We continue to work hard to be proactive in our communications with tribes on future and prospective projects. For example, on multiple occasions, I have visited with tribal leaders to communicate my commitment to work together to create economic opportunities and protect important cultural and sacred sites.

Unfortunately, a strong state-tribal relationship has not always existed at the State Land Office. Upon returning to office in 2011, I re-implemented a government to government relationship between the Land Office and the Tribal Nations. In addition I created the first-ever Tribal Liaison position within the agency to improve state-tribal interactions and enhance communication. The Tribal Liaison is responsible for developing meaningful working relationships with the tribes by building trust and mutual respect while promoting the mission, vision and goals of the Land Office. The Tribal Liaison fosters partnerships for economic opportunities, sound land management practices and sustainable use of natural resources on State Trust Land while working with the tribal nations in New Mexico and those located beyond our borders.

I strongly believe it is important to find common ground. One of my first acts at the beginning of my term was to withdraw the State Land Office from on-going litigation with several pueblos and sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Pueblos of Laguna, Acoma, Zuni and the Hopi Tribe regarding the process of consultation on proposed activities on State Trust Lands that are located within the boundaries of the Mount Taylor Traditional cultural landscape. The MOU resolved previous litigation which involved the former Land Commissioner’s legal attempts to thwart consultation with the sovereign tribes regarding sacred sites on Mount Taylor.

By establishing clear lines of communication between the sovereign tribal governments and the State Land Office, we are better positioned to finding mutually advantageous opportunities while honoring the cultural traditions and practices of tribal nations in present and future dealings.

I continue to work to exchange lands important to tribal communities, most recently with the Pueblo of Cochiti and the Navajo Nation. We also partnered with the Tesuque Pueblo Seed Bank and Research Laboratory on a demonstration garden at the Land Office building in Santa Fe to provide opportunities for local citizens to learn about the important work being done at the Tesuque Pueblo Seed Bank.

Protecting cultural resources and ensuring appropriate access to sacred sites on State Trust Lands is also a priority as we make leasing decisions about the use of State Trust Land. One example of this is our efforts to ensure that archeological artifacts from Pueblo Blanco—a 600-year-old late prehistoric ancestral pueblo occupied from 1400 to 1680 by Tanoan-speaking people which is located on State Trust Land in the Galisteo basin—are cared for and are accessible to descendants of the pueblo.

The bottom line is that collaboration and consultation is not only important to Native American communities but also essential and beneficial to the Land Office’s efforts to fulfill our mission. Building sustainable partnerships and finding additional ways to work together on issues of mutual interest is in everyone’s best interests and one of my top priorities.

Ray Powell is New Mexico's commissioner of public lands.