By Todd G. DicksonLas Cruces Bulletin
The northern call-up area of White Sands Missile Range may come under the control of the Department of Defense, based on an amendment in a U.S. House of Representatives bill.
Within a 700-page military spending bill passed by the House May 22 is an amendment to transfer control of more than 300,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM)property north of White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) to the Department of Defense.
The area has been of concern since the ambitious SunZia renewable energy project’s proposed high-voltage power line wanted to cross it. WSMR officials had objected to the transmission line crossing the call-up area because it is often used for testing drone-type weaponry and defense systems against drones.
In May, Defense Secretary
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Chuck Hagel agreed to drop opposition to the SunZia transmission project if its developers would agree to bury five miles of the line in at least three different locations along the 45 miles of call-up area it would cross. According to its developers, SunZia would generate wind and solar energy in New Mexico and the transmission line, which would be more than 500 miles long, is needed to bring the power to the Western power markets.
SunZia originally rejected the proposal to either run the line around the call-up area or bury the line, but its spokesman, Ian Calkins, said the partial burial of the line was something the project would likely find to be an affordable compromise to avoid further delay.
SunZia has yet to comment on the amendment because it is still studying the proposal, Calkins said.
When the area is not being used for testing, the BLM leases the land to ranchers with the condition that they must evacuate the area during testing with 72-hour advance notice. The callup area also includes some private and state land.
The news of the proposed transfer has caught the attention of environmentalists because there are several wilderness study areas in the land cited in the amendment: the Stallion and Loma de las Canas wilderness study areas, the Mockingbird Gap area of critical environmental concern and a portion of Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.
Also worried are sportsmen who claim the area contains some prime elk and deer hunting territory, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
“We are not aware of any public notification or public comment opportunities on this withdrawal at any time before the amendment was added,” said Michelle Briscoe, conservation director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
According to the Southwest Environmenal Center, the amendment to transfer control of the land to the Department of Defense was introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT. In an Albuquerque Journal article, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, said the amendment was needed to give the Defense Department final say over management of the area.
Pearce told the Albuquerque Journal that the land transfer would not affect the SunZia transmission project.
“It can’t affect anything in the past,” Pearce said of the amendment. “It will only affect projects going forward.”
WSMR Commander Brig. Gen. Timothy Coffin told the Journal that he agreed Pearce’s amendment is unlikely to affect SunZia, but would give the Department of Defense greater control over future development projects.
“We think it is a reasonable solution to ensure that there aren’t future encroachments on the range,” Coffin said.
White Sands has already taken early steps to comply with the SunZia agreement announced in May, Coffin told the Journal.
Ranchers in the call-up area are also concerned that the change could endanger their grazing leases.
Pearce told the Journal that BLM would continue to manage grazing leases on federal lands in the northern extension area even if the land’s management is transferred to the Defense Department. The amendment will not bar access to federal lands by ranchers or hunters, he said.
Pearce said he has not spoken with senators about the proposal and doesn’t know if the amendment will be included in the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told the Journal that any proposal to put BLM land under control of the Department of Defense would require a “thorough, public and transparent process” with input from the community before Heinrich would consider supporting it.
In addition to advocates for renewable energy wanting the SunZia project to succeed, people in economically struggling areas along the transmission line’s route away from WSMR’sboundaries are hungry for the promised jobs from construction of the transmission line and solar or wind farms.
According to the Ruidoso News, Barbara Sultemeier, a member of the Corona Landowners Association, said she and her husband have been involved in the proposed project for nearly seven years and are looking forward to a resolution.
“Potentially, they’re going to have a western burial of about one mile, and an eastern burial and central burial each of about two miles,” Sultemeier said. “They have agreed to this, so now, there has to be an (environmental assessment), so it will probably be six to eight months before we actually have a record of decision by the BLM. ... For me personally, its manna from heaven.”
An environmental assessment is a less time-consuming and difficult process than having to complete a full environmental impact statement, unless a problem is found for which there is not easy mitigation, according to BLM officials.
Todd G. Dickson may be contacted at 680-1983 or todd@ lascrucesbulletin.com.