SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday signed legislation that will clear the way for more prescribed fires as New Mexico deals with worsening drought and climate change.
The measure clarifies liability for private landowners who conduct prescribed burns and creates a certification program for conducting such burns safely. Officials with the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department say that would make it easier and more affordable for landowners to get insurance.
Supporters say similar legislation in other states has resulted in increased prescribed burning — one of the main tools used by state and federal land managers to clear out dead and overgrown vegetation as a way to reduce the threat of more severe wildfires.
“The Prescribed Burning Act is an important proactive action for our state to ensure our forests and watersheds provide clean water and other benefits for future generations — while recognizing and mitigating the impacts of a changing climate,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement issued after she signed the bill.
A working group was established in 2019 to study how best to expand the use of prescribed burns. Meetings with landowners, tribal members, environmentalists, farmers and others followed.
The seasonal outlook issued by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center shows drought in New Mexico and much of the western half of the U.S. persisting at least through the end of June. Forecasters say widespread above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation are favored for much of the central and southern western region over the coming months.
More than half of New Mexico is dealing with exceptional drought, which is the worst category, according to the latest drought map.
Other legislation signed Thursday:
— A bill aligning the state’s minimum wage for employees under 18 with the adult wage of $10.50 an hour.
— A bill establishing a 15-member advisory council that will advise the state Public Education Department on implementation of bilingual multicultural education programs. Some of the money could also be invested by the state to cover longer-term costs.
— A bill to ensure that any financial assurance forfeited by mine operators that default on their reclamation obligations is deposited into a fund to be used for specific reclamation projects. The state could also invest some of the money to cover longer-term costs.