Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writers
"A divided New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday ruled against the White Peak land swaps negotiated by former State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons and appeared to bar any future trades of private tracts for state trust land.
The high court said it wasn't ruling on whether the four-part exchange of land parcels in the White Peak area north of Ocate was a good deal or a bad one.
The opinion by Justice Richard C. Bosson says the "Land commissioner makes a cogent argument supporting his conclusion that certain private land exchanges would improve the management and value of state trust lands."
But it says that under New Mexico's 100-year-old Enabling Act, the state land commissioner can only dispose of trust land "by a true public auction."
"Without the benefit of an auction's objective means of sale ... there is no protection against favoritism," the opinion says.
Bosson, joined by Justices Petra Jimenez Maes and Patricio M. Serna stressed that the court wasn't undoing any past Land Office exchanges.
Justices Edward Chavez and Charles Daniels dissented. Chavez noted that the land commissioner's "undivided loyalty is to the designated beneficiaries and not the state as a whole."
By quibbling over the specifics of the auction process instead of questioning the commissioner's overall authority to exchange land, Chavez wrote, "the attorney general seeks to protect the best interests of the bidders (in the White Peak case), not the best interests of the trust beneficiaries." It was Attorney General Gary King who challenged the trades before the Supreme Court.
In the White Peak deal, Lyons maintained the trades he negotiated with ranchers would help clear up complicated boundaries between state and private land and prevent trespassing, poaching and vandalism. Opponents said Lyons was giving up some of the state's best public elk hunting territory.
The Supreme Court majority noted that the Enabling Act says state trust lands "shall not be sold or leased, in whole or in part, except to the highest and best bidder at a public auction."
Because the White Peak deals had to be worked out ahead of time, the opinion says, the exchanges were made using negotiating and bargaining "rather than seeking the highest financial gain through objective means."' More>>>>