ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A U.S. Senate candidate who serves as New Mexico's top land manager posted signs Tuesday along the U.S.-Mexico border aimed at blocking border patrol operations on a one-mile stretch of state trust land over concerns that the federal government is not compensating the state for using the land.
Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn told The Associated Press that if his office can't reach an agreement over an easement with the federal government, he will install a fence to block access to the property.
Dunn, elected in 2014 as a Republican, announced earlier this year he was running for the U.S. Senate after becoming a Libertarian. He previously considered running for governor and the U.S. House.
Dunn first outlined his concerns in a letter sent last month to federal officials. He said it's an issue of state sovereignty and that revenue earned from development or use of trust land helps fund public education in the state.
"I'm shutting down the federal government just as I would shut down any business trespassing on state trust lands," Dunn said. "Border security is important, but so are our kids and they have a right to collect the money earned from the lands they own."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it is evaluating Dunn's concerns. The agency said in a statement Tuesday that part of the strategy for securing the border includes developing and leveraging partnerships with state and local stakeholders.
There were no reports that operations had been interrupted Tuesday after Dunn posted the signage and cordoned off the road with tape, but at least one challenger in the Senate race, Republican Mick Rich, suggested Dunn's move was a political stunt.
Dunn argued the land commissioner's responsibilities to collect revenue from trust lands are clear and that making the issue public was the only way to get the government's attention.
The debate about installing more fencing and barriers along the border heated up recently when a federal judge sided with the Trump administration over a challenge to waivers that had been issued to clear the way for construction in parts of California and New Mexico.
There's no timeline for when work might begin to replace barriers along a 20-mile stretch near Santa Teresa, New Mexico. The State Land Office began researching the effects construction could have after some state Democrat lawmakers proposed legislation aimed at blocking construction on state trust land.
The State Land Office oversees millions of acres, including a patchwork along the state's southern border with Mexico.
Dunn's staff determined that one parcel between the Santa Teresa port of entry and El Paso, Texas, had been initially conveyed to what was then the territory of New Mexico under the 1898 Ferguson Act. New Mexico officials contend the parcel was never part of the buffer zone that was established by a 1907 presidential proclamation to ensure federal authorities could patrol along the southern border.
Dunn said a survey by the Bureau of Land Management and other records show the state owns the entire parcel and that the federal government never received permission from the state to build the border barrier that has existed there for years, or to use the roads in the area.
There also are questions about whether a right of way is needed for another area where the federal government has installed lights and is maintaining a road along the border.
Easement and rights of way fees would cost roughly $30,000 for the parcels in question, according to preliminary estimates by the State Land Office.
"This trespass issue is not a new issue," Dunn said. "There's been quite a bit of federal encroachment."