Our New Mexico elected officials will soon be traveling to Santa Fe amid an unprecedented influx of federal stimulus dollars and a sizeable state budget surplus. They have the unique opportunity to invest in the preservation of family traditions, to enjoy our landscapes, our water catchment areas and community parks and to create memories of them.
During this pandemic, New Mexicans have found refuge in our state’s parks and in the open air. These special places offer refuge and comfort to reconnect with nature. Unfortunately, many of us have visited our state parks and found them poorly maintained, overcrowded, and understaffed. Our state has a maintenance backlog of approximately $ 40 million for our 35 state parks. Dozens of communities, including neighboring states, have already invested federal funding in upgrading their state parks, and we should do the same. Now is the time to work on this backlog.
Of course, our community has already used federal funds effectively on conservation gems over the years, and these should serve as examples of what is possible in the future. In Las Cruces, we recently benefited from federal funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to renovate Apodaca Park, with plans that include building a multipurpose trail, water play area, upgraded play equipment, and new bathrooms. Other notable facilities that have received LWCF funding include Laabs Swimming Pool, Burn Lake, Young Park, and Mesilla Plaza.
In our own yard, the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park and lands in or near Achenbach Canyon, Soledad Canyon, and Pena Blanca were bought with federal LWCF dollars. These are exactly the investments that make Las Cruces a great place to raise our families and get outside.
The efforts to build a new park in Las Cruces from the old Villa Mora Dam area are exciting. The project received community support including early investment from the City of Las Cruces for a feasibility study. Now, with the inflow of new money, state and federal funds could easily be used to give this project the attention it deserves, be it to connect existing neighborhoods to the city’s largest walking path, or to create an ecological and educational center to create to demonstrate the natural habitat of the Chihuahuan.
Since projects like this often require federal funding, we need more action at the state level to move forward. To maximize future LWCF dollars, not only must we provide government funding, but we also need to make minor and surgical changes to an existing state law – called the Natural Heritage Conservation Act – to allow local communities to unleash that federal funding with a local state to match.
We are fortunate that some of the strongest conservationists in our state represent Doña Ana County. We thank them for being our conservation champions and we urge them to continue this momentum and forward direction of investment in our land and watershed conservation in the upcoming budget legislative session. Our youth, our future leaders, are looking for mentors.
Ángel Peña is executive director of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project.