State planning to lease range land to Air Force

File photo The state has switched gears in an Air Force land project for expansion of its Melrose Range and is now working on a long-term lease agreement rather than a purchase arrangement.

Sharna Johnson

The state has determined it would rather be a landlord than a seller when it comes to use of state lands for expansion of the Melrose Range for the Air Force, citing more revenue for education and surplus money for Cannon Air Force Base projects.

A long-term leasing arrangement to get the Air Force the land it needs for expansion of the range is the ideal situation for everyone and it’s the new course for the project, said State Public Lands Commissioner Ray Powell.

“We’re on the lease track now … There does not seem to be an impediment to doing the long-term lease, so I would say all of the emphasis is being put on the long-term lease,” he said Tuesday. “ From our stand point that really ensures that the school children retain that property forever (so) it creates a win-win for the military and the community.”

The land in question is state land surrounding the existing range owned by the Air Force and is held in trust for public schools.

For more than four years efforts have been under way to purchase the land — approximately 30,000 acres of mostly public trust land and some privately owned land — using a $5 million allocation intended by the state legislature as a gift to the Air Force.

In the event it is sold, Powell said the proceeds go into the state’s permanent fund with less than 6 percent trickled back to schools. He said because of the way the law is written, if it is leased, those lease payments go directly into the public school fund.

“Right now when our budget is so limited, it will provide a good infusion that we didn’t know would happen,” Powell said.

Powell said he and his staff toured the range last week and have talked with military leaders about the lease project.

Moving the project forward is a “very cooperative and collaborative effort to get things done — the bottom line is, I think it’s going very well,” he said.

Air Force officials said Wednesday via email that, “The Air Force is studying the offer from the State of New Mexico,” however they said they were unable to provide more information in time for this report.

The amount the Air Force has to spend will determine the length of the lease, Powell said, but that is an unknown number because the annual lease cost is still being calculated based on market value.

“The length of the lease is determinate on how much money they have to (spend) on the lease,” he said. “We’re more than happy to make it virtually how long they want it but it depends on how much money they bring to the table … that’s why there is a certain amount of uncertainty.”

And though the numbers are still being firmed up, Powell said there is a strong possibility the lease will come at a lesser price than the available $5 million, leaving whatever the difference is for projects that could benefit Cannon Air Force Base.

Curry County has approached the state to try and secure money for projects to benefit Cannon, according to Commission Chairman Caleb Chandler

“We have asked the Governor for two million dollars for land acquisition for (Cannon) expansion and to resolve issues with security and runway clear zones,” Chandler said via email Wednesday.

“Although the Governor has been very supportive, I do not know that this issue has progressed to the point where there are any final firm dollar amounts assigned to expansion of Melrose Range or (Cannon).”

During a March 28 commission meeting, Chandler reported the state finance authority has issued a document guaranteeing the $5 million appropriation will remain secure until June 2014.

The 66,000-acre bombing range is located 25 miles west of Cannon near Melrose and is used for training by Cannon and other air bases.

Officials have said the bombing range weighed heavily in the decision to keep the base open and bring in a special operations mission after it was recommended to be shuttered by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission in 2005.