Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

State loses millions in federal dollars meant for outdoor recreation projects

New Mexico has forfeited more than $5 million in federal funding for outdoor recreation projects over the last three years because employees at New Mexico’s State Parks Division missed deadlines to distribute the money to projects around the state.

The money is the state’s share of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a five decade-old federal program that funnels revenue largely from offshore oil and gas leases to outdoor recreation and land conservation efforts. The fund supports several programs, including one in which communities and tribes around the nation can apply for up to $250,000 each.

Roadblocks to distributing the funds, state staff say, included lack of staffing, a maze of bureaucratic requirements, and simple missteps, like neglecting to update an email address online. Grant applications for those funds filed by New Mexico communities two years ago still await submission for federal approval.

“Money is just flying out of our hands,” Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos, said at a Water and Natural Resources Committee in November when state lawmakers were briefed on the lost funds. “I can’t contain the anxiety I feel about that and how that money could have gone to communities.”

Robert Stokes, chief of the Program Support Bureau at state parks and currently covering the job of Land and Water Conservation Fund program coordinator, blamed a lack of employees. The work was “a big task for just one person,” he said during the committee meeting.

Since 1965, federal dollars have funded 1,200 projects in New Mexico, building trails, acquiring land, and improving city parks. But the state parks division, which administers the grants, has not supported any community-based projects since 2005, when money went to a swimming pool in Lovington. Instead, New Mexico’s allocation since then has gone to state parks: building campsites, picnic tables, footpaths, bathrooms, and water systems.

The State Parks division says the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s erratic history led them to stop running a community grant program. Congress used to dictate how much the national fund received each year, and underfunded it for years. The share for state and local assistance grants heading to New Mexico dwindled to less than $500,000 annually for a few years. So State Parks decided to utilize the money rather than call for community grant applications, Stokes said.

However, the agency focused on state parks maintenance rather than community projects even in years when the funding increased to $1 million or more. Stokes declined to comment on that decision, which preceded his arrival at the department.

The financial stakes really shifted in 2020 when, amid great public fanfare, Congress committed $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund so long as revenues kept it fully funded at that amount. New Mexico’s share of the $900 million for local grants worked out to about $2.5 million per year. The National Park Service also required that states appoint a dedicated administrator, which New Mexico did in late 2020 and called for grant applications in late 2021.

“It did take a while for the state to be able to get all of those pieces in position that are required … to start moving forward with the application process,” Stokes said.

But state parks already lagged behind. The National Park Service makes money available for up to three fiscal years. After that time, any portion not dedicated to an approved project reverts to a federal contingency fund spent at the secretary of interior’s discretion.

New Mexico lost access to nearly $1 million of the $1.9 million awarded in 2019, and then most of the $2.5 million allocated in 2020, according to documents obtained in response to a public records request. Stokes told lawmakers during the November hearing that New Mexico lost another $2.1 million in 2023 but was likely to get those dollars back. The National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Fund regional program manager told New Mexico In Depth that might not be possible.

“There were state parks projects that were occurring and they did use up some of that money that was set to expire, but not the totality of it,” Stokes said. “And before the first open application period was announced in late 2021, we didn’t have community applications either to potentially use some of that money.”

But 11 communities and two tribes submitted applications for funding by the end of 2021. Another 14 communities applied in 2022. The press release announcing that call for proposals erroneously stated that 13 projects the previous year had been awarded $2.5 million. In reality, those applications have not been submitted for federal approval yet.

The delays worry Kay Bounkeua, New Mexico deputy director for The Wilderness Society, an environmental organization that campaigned for full federal funding and then encouraged communities to apply.

“People will be like, ‘Well I’m not going to apply for that. I did once and didn’t hear for five years,’” Bounkeua said. “There’s a lot of other issues that are going to come out of this because of the struggles of standing this program up.”

In 2021, Luna County applied for $250,000 to build batting cages as part of a growing recreation center in downtown Deming. The county applied again in 2022 for basketball courts, said Bryan Reedy, the county’s grants and projects director, but “I’ve given up on that one.”

The dirt has been leveled and ready for a while. But Reedy said he’d rather tap other funding and move on than continue chasing a string of requests for more information about this grant, the latest of which asked for details he’d submitted in previous emails.

“I have no trust in even waiting for them—I’ve got to get this project done,” Reedy said. “We’ll be done with the project before they tell us if we’ve been accepted or not.”

Meanwhile, rising prices downsized the county plan from six to five batting cages. It might shrink again. Between the emailed clarifications and modifications as the project has evolved over two years, he said, “We’ve rewritten this grant like three times. It’s frustrating.”

The Pueblos of Acoma and Santa Clara both applied for funding in 2021, the first for an outdoor recreation center, and the second for picnic areas, restroom facilities, and day-use cabins to replace a campground destroyed by the Las Conchas wildfire in 2011. If awarded, these tribally led projects would be the first in New Mexico to receive Land and Water Conservation Fund support since 1989.

Santa Clara Pueblo has worked for a decade to restore the ecology of Santa Clara Canyon after the wildfire, said Garrett Altmann, a GIS coordinator and project manager for the tribe. This grant marked a first move toward recovering recreational spaces that allow people to reconnect with that landscape. The tribe has secured millions in other federal support since that wildfire, but this process is more cumbersome, requiring detailed estimates that are difficult to provide.

“Now we’re like, is it worth $200,000 to go through all this?” he said.

The process includes internal reviews and state parks staff transferring applications onto paperwork for the National Park Service, which can total more than 20 forms.

At this point, five communities have withdrawn their 2021 applications, citing reasons such as insufficient matching funds. The Land and Water Conservation Fund requires that communities identify other sources for 50% of the project cost.

In 1973, the state created and allocated the equivalent of millions in 2022 dollars to a supplemental fund for that matching requirement, but lawmakers haven’t deposited money into it since 1994, according to an analysis by Western Resource Advocates.

“I had reached out to folks at state parks on when the last time money was appropriated [to that fund],” said Jonathan Hayden, a senior policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates. “They didn’t even know it existed.”

Hayden is working with Sen. Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, on a bill to address some of the program’s issues, including directing money to that fund. The changes might also allow the state to spend some of that financial support on outreach and administrative time and training, including technical support for rural communities, and perhaps ease some eligibility requirements so more communities qualify.

“Because we already have the fund, because we have experience using it and because it’s really designed to help rural areas of the state, I just think this could be a real benefit,” Stewart said.

The eight applications remaining from 2021 were ready to submit this July. But the state had changed its email address format, and no one had updated the federal web portal for uploading applications. State staff didn’t recognize the problem until they tried to submit documents, and were unable to log-in until after the deadline. Those applications may finally be submitted in January, and New Mexico does have funds remaining to cover their requests.

Staff are now starting on the federal forms for applications from 2022.

Requests for additional information, from a missed signature that takes mere minutes to correct, to more exhaustive environmental inquiries, are common, according to the National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Fund regional program manager. It’s also not unheard of for a state to leave some money unspent, but losing millions is “unusual.”

The state’s Land and Water Conservation Fund program coordinator position—the full-time employee dedicated to administering these grants—has been vacant since October. Stokes anticipates a new full-time program coordinator starting in January and perhaps, eventually, a second employee or interns. Even without a program coordinator, the state issued another call for grants this fall, with applications due at the end of December.

Comments are closed.