Deanna Archuleta, a lobbyist for ExxonMobil, has joined the New Mexico Game Commission, taking a seat that until now was reserved for environmentalists.
Archuleta was quietly appointed last month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The official announcement of her appointment is expected at a commission meeting March 4.
The commission oversees the Department of Game and Fish, which manages the state’s wildlife, regulates hunting and fishing and oversees state-run conservation programs. The appointment comes during a period of controversy for the game commission, which has been embroiled in political debates regarding public access to land, streams and hunting opportunities.
Before becoming a lobbyist for the oil industry, Archuleta worked as an advisor to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and was the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science under President Barack Obama. She is a longtime donor and supporter of Lujan Grisham, who endorsed Archuleta’s run for Albuquerque mayor in 2017. In her capacity as a lobbyist, Archuleta donated at least $12,500 to Lujan Grisham’s campaign, according to lobbying reports.
Despite Archuleta’s past experience in public lands, conservation groups have voiced alarm about potential conflicts of interest between her oil lobbying work and future wildlife decisions. Some say the appointment is the latest sign that the game commission has fallen under the influence of a governor who has already removed several commissioners after they opposed the interests of private landowners, some of whom are large political donors.
“It doesn’t matter who the commissioner is. It could be the head lobbyist for ExxonMobil or it could be the CEO of the Sierra Club,” said Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “They’re going to follow their marching orders, or they’re going to be removed from the commission.” Defying the governor is not an option, he said: “They have no authority, they’re not allowed to do their jobs.”
Oil and gas influence
Archuleta will assume the at-large seat on the seven-member commission, filling a spot that has been open since the unexpected death last March of David Soules, a well-known environmentalist from Las Cruces. That particular seat has historically been set aside for someone who represents environmental issues.
In a statement from the governor’s office, spokeswoman Nora Sackett emphasized Archuleta’s experience with the Department of the Interior. But environmental groups bristled.
“I find the implication that the governor and ExxonMobil’s senior director for federal relations are aligned on the mission of the Game and Fish Commission deeply troubling,” Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, director of the Western Environmental Law Center, wrote in an email. “This appointment is further evidence of the governor’s far too cozy relationship with oil and gas industry leadership.”
While the Game Commission does not directly regulate the oil and gas industry, it does have influence over habitat protection programs that could limit the industry’s activity. The commission can also make recommendations on which areas may be opened to drilling activity.
Asked about the potential of a conflict of interest, Sackett noted that, “by law, Game Commission members must recuse themselves from matters directly related to their work outside the board or commission.”
Still, conservationists worry that the appointment could change the focus of the commission, pushing it from a body focused on conservation to one skeptical of it.
“I think there’s a possibility that [the oil and gas industry] thinks of species protections as a burden rather than a conservation opportunity,” said Chris Smith, a Southwest Wildlife Advocate with WildEarth Guardians. “That’s very typical of how oil and gas has conveyed species protection.”
A tradition of corruption
Since at least the mid-90s, New Mexico governors have regularly appointed political donors to the game commission. In many cases these donors have had financial interests tied to the commission’s decisions. Some owned large tracts of land where they ran private hunting and fishing operations, while others worked in oil and gas or agriculture — industries that often face restrictions under wildlife conservation programs.
Despite this history, wildlife groups had high hopes for the original commission appointed by Gov. Lujan Grisham in 2019, which included respected wildlife managers, public land advocates and hunters and anglers.
But though commissioners typically serve up to four years, only three of Lujan Grisham’s original appointees remain. In addition to Soules’ death and a resignation, the governor removed two commissioners — Joanna Prukop in December 2019 and Jeremy Vesbach this January. Both Prukop and Vesbach had thrown their support behind public access issues that ran afoul of positions of some of the governor’s top donors.
The question of public access has come to a head in recent years, as private landowners and wealthy hunting and fishing outfitters have sought to close off waterways that pass through private land and to secure large numbers of big game hunting licenses.
As the debate has made its way through commissions and the courts, some of the most vocal landowners have hired lobbyists and made hefty political contributions to influential politicians from both parties. Landowners — and the lobbyists and groups affiliated with them — have donated at least $32,500 to Lujan Grisham’s campaigns for Congress and governor.
Prukop’s dismissal came shortly after her vote to reconsider a commission rule that restricted access to streams that flow through public land. A lawsuit challenging that rule went to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which ruled Tuesday that it was unconstitutional.
Vesbach had also voted to reconsider that rule, though Sackett said in a statement that his dismissal had nothing to do with stream access, but rather a “disagreement of mission.”
In an interview, Vesbach said he had also been speaking up about other issues he sees as limiting New Mexican’s access to public lands and wildlife, like the sale of a large chunk of the available elk hunting tags to non-residents.
“New Mexico over a long period of time has privatized access to public land and public water around hunting and fishing in particular,” Vesbach said. “It’s created a very volatile system where there’s a lot of money to be had by controlling access.”
Ike Swetlitz contributed reporting to this story.