Report: New Mexico has sold 4 million acres of land to oil companies and development

A Wilderness Society report [PDF] finds that in a little over a century of statehood, New Mexico has liquidated about 30 percent of the land originally granted to it—nearly 4 million acres—and sold it to cattle ranchers, oil and gas companies, railroads and other development interests.  

The report underscores again why we should be skeptical of politicians' guarantees that the land takeover movement won't ultimately serve to enrich special interests at the expense of ordinary Americans. 

Photo: Mason Cummings (TWS)

The findings arrive at a felicitous moment. In the last few months, a fringe-led campaign to seize national public lands has moved from isolated state legislatures—including New Mexico's--to the halls of Congress. Early in 2017, New Mexicans rallied in opposition to a House bill--later withdrawn--that would have sold off millions of acres of land in the state and nine others (the parcels were to be "disposed of," in the parlance of that legislation).  

Anti-public lands lawmakers have frequently tried to quell fears about the "land takeover" enterprise by claiming that, once seized, public lands will not be sold off.  Like a similar report about Idaho's state lands, released in May 2016, these data suggest New Mexicans should be wary of such promises. 

Highlights from the report: 

  • Of the 12,794,718 acres of land New Mexico was granted at statehood in 1912, the New Mexico State Land Office has sold off nearly 4 million acres—some 30% of its original land holdings. 

  • Once sold, state land acreage has often become industrialized for short-term economic gain with little regard for the health consequences and the environmental damage it can cause to surrounding communities. 

  • Notable examples include Molybdenum Corporation of America's purchase of nearly 4,000 acres of state trust land near Río Grande del Norte National Monument, part of which was used as a mine tailing site (since identified as a polluted "Superfund" area and currently owned and operated by Chevron) and Yates Petroleum Inc.'s purchase of 14,710 acres for oil exploration and drilling. 

  • In New Mexico's state legislature, 12 bills have been introduced since 2013 with the ultimate goal of seizing forests, refuges, parks and other shared lands and transferring them to state control. 


While land seizure is a hot topic in New Mexico, local opinion tracks with reports that indicate it's a bad idea. Various polls have shown that most New Mexicans oppose state takeover of national public lands; 74 percent say they think public lands like national parks and forests should belong to everyone in the U.S. vs. just to state residents; and only 33 percent think they can trust the state government “to do what is right” most of the time. 

Meanwhile, though a state desperate for a quick payday may overlook it, public lands are incredibly valuable in their own right. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, an overall $6.1 billion is spent on outdoor recreation in New Mexico annually, supporting 68,400 jobs. Ninety percent of the state’s sportsmen hunt or fish on public lands, providing $579 million annually to the state’s economy.  

“Let’s be clear: the strings are being pulled by a narrow group of interests and don’t reflect the values that people in the West and across this country place on our shared heritage, our public lands,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director for The Wilderness Society, in a press release. “Some politicians parade the argument that the state could manage public lands better than the federal government, but the report proves that this is illogical and unworkable, in addition to being unconstitutional.”

Learn more about protecting Our Wild and standing up to land seizure and sell-off