VeneKlasen is as concerned with what is above ground -- 9 million acres. And he's got big ideas for it.
Talk to Garrett VeneKlasen for a few minutes and he can sound as much like a fishing guide as a politician. He is likely to rattle off the names of species of birds or mammals or fish. A mental map of New Mexico emerges that is drawn with the contours of hikes and hunting grounds and birding spots.
It's no act.
For much of his career, VeneKlasen was a guide.
And now he wants to oversee a big swath of New Mexico's outdoors.
The commissioner of public land's job can be as much about what is below ground -- 13 million subsurface acres of state trust property with lots of oil and gas to fund New Mexico's education system. But VeneKlasen is as concerned with what is above ground -- 9 million acres. And he's got big ideas for it. He proposes more renewable energy projects, ecotourism and public access. He has said he supports a wolf refuge on state trust land, too.
"The thing that defined me as a young man and still does is the outdoors," he told the audience at a recent forum in Eldorado.
In short, VeneKlasen proposes the state reimagine the land commissioner's job as one more active in conservation, recreation and wildlife management.
Don't doubt for a minute that VeneKlasen is a politician, though. He comes from the politically active world of sportsmen. He has won endorsements from environmental groups. His campaign has outspent the competition. His ads have taken on President Donald Trump and incumbent commissioner Aubrey Dunn -- landing him in court on claims of defamation.
So, VeneKlasen can seem like just the candidate for Democrats eager to see an anti-Trump backlash avenge the right's rise. Some supporters of his opponents in the Democratic primary have questioned whether he is really one of them, however. After all, he was a Republican until just a few years ago.
Could a candidate who long identified with the GOP be the Democrats' best fighter when it comes to the environment and public lands in 2018?
Republican to Democrat
Born and raised in New Mexico, VeneKlasen went into business for himself as a guide, leading trips to outdoor destinations around the world.
"I took a lot of people to the jungle and Mongolia and all sorts of crazy places," he said.
When his wife, Annie, was pregnant, she said "no more of this crazy stuff," as he recounts it.
VeneKlasen then went to work with the nonprofit group Trout Unlimited and then the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, emerging as an activist on public lands issues.
VeneKlasen is on leave as the New Mexico Wildlife Federation's executive director while campaigning.
But during his time with the organization, VeneKlasen advocated for limits on methane flaring from natural gas wells, expanding the Pecos Wilderness and establishing the Rio Grande del Norte as well as the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks national monuments under President Barack Obama.
So, even though VeneKlasen had not been involved in Democratic politics per se for very long, it did not come as too much of a surprise that he would run for land commissioner. These were his issues, after all.
VeneKlasen came out swinging, running a radio ad targeting incumbent Republican Aubrey Dunn that led to a defamation suit.
And VeneKlasen racked up endorsements and financial support.
But the race shifted, with Dunn deciding to run for U.S. Senate as a Libertarian rather than seek a second term and former Republican land commissioner Pat Lyons angling for a comeback.
So, too, was former Democratic commissioner Ray Powell. He was running in the party's primary against VeneKlasenbefore dropping out due to health reasons.
Rather than backing VeneKlasen, though, he recruited state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard for the race.
Powell raised concerns that VeneKlasen had been a Republican for much of his life -- up until a few years ago, in fact.
VeneKlasen does not hide from that. He says he was a Republican for years because he identified with a sort of conservationist legacy within the party. But as the GOP has embraced calls for transferring control of federal lands and turned increasingly against environmental protection policies, VeneKlasen decamped. He became a Democrat.
As he wrote in a 2016 op-ed endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, the GOP "has -- by and large -- been hijacked by opportunists, radical ideologues, hucksters, narcissists and special interest shills masquerading as 'conservatives.' "
"He wasn't an extreme Republican. He was more of a moderate Republican," says Rock Ulibarri, who has worked with VeneKlasen, endorsed his campaign and is a member of the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners.
And that tough talk on issues such as conservation is what has rallied support from groups such as the Sierra Club as well as Conservation Voters New Mexico.
"I don't see him in the pocket of big oil," Ulibarri said. "I don't see him doing any favors."
Still, VeneKlasen's past support for Republicans has become a refrain of his political opponents in the Democratic Party.
After U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich endorsed VeneKlasen, for example, an anonymous website appeared titled Heinrich Got Tricked, pointing to VeneKlasen's old Republican voter registration and otherwise -- as he describes it -- depicting him as a bloodthirsty and irreverent heathen trophy hunter.
On the issues
The thing about any conservationist running to lead the State Land Office is that it largely manages natural resources like oil, gas and other minerals.
The money from those resources provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year, mostly for the state's education system.
VeneKlasen proposes at least getting a start on recasting the office, though. He wants to expand renewable energy production on state trust land, arguing that could generate more revenue for the state and help shift the office from its current focus on oil and gas, which accounts for the vast majority of money it currently rakes in.
And he has proposed using the position of land commissioner to advocate for issues outside the office's direct control, such as using a larger share of the state's Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education and raising the royalties the state collects on oil and gas production.
VeneKlasen has said he also wants to expand recreation opportunities on state trust land and make it easier for hunters, campers and birders to get access.
"I want to bring the world to New Mexico," he said recently, proposing the office open up access to more camping areas and create an outdoor education department.
But ultimately, VeneKlasen believes the land commissioner's office needs to grow, which he suggested would be feasible if the office raises revenue through other sources.
And he wants to restructure the land commissioner's office, better involve tribes in its operations and decision making and ban animal killing contests on state trust property. Plus, he'd support creating a wolf refuge on state trust land.
Much of this would likely set up a clash with ranchers.
Efforts to expand the Pecos Wilderness rankled some in Northern New Mexico, for example.
One group connected to farmers and ranchers, New Mexicans for Freedom PAC, has already unleashed robocalls describing VeneKlasen as a communist (the PAC has the same phone number and address as state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Republican from Roswell. But Pirtle said he does not run the PAC, just helps it).
Another of his opponents in the Democratic primary, state senator and rancher George Muñoz, accuses VeneKlasen of having an "environmental agenda."
Perhaps Garcia Richard summed up the challenge that the Democratic nominee will face in the general election.
The oil and gas industry is "losing a friend on the fourth floor," she told a forum, referring to outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. "They're losing a friend in the land office. They're going to dig in."
The scale of that struggle is not lost on VeneKlasen. He talks about the job not in the administrative sense of managing oil and gas revenue but of fighting for public lands more broadly.
Whether he can win over enough Democrats and then win the bigger battles likely to follow with oilmen, ranchers and those simply wary of expanding the agency's scope if he is elected remains to be seen.
VeneKlasen, the man who speaks like a fishing guide and sounds like a roughneck when he talks about the oil rig in front of the land office.
That thing, he says, is coming down.
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