Government's Duty to Protect Its Citizens



NOTE:  The following was submitted to the Editors at the Albuquerque Journal on August 2, 2016.


Dear Editor:

At the RNC, Donald Trump made the following statement to roaring applause:

"The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead."

Interestingly, that is EXACTLY the premise upon which New Mexico's Otero County Resolution, Senate Bill 1 and New Mexico’s Petition to the US Secretary of Agriculture attempted to enable New Mexico to protect its citizens from the risk of death, injury or property loss caused by catastrophic forest fires.  

Few would deny that forest overgrowth on federal lands is the primary reason many wildfires in this state become both unstoppable and catastrophic -- fires that clearly pose a foreseeable threat to the lives and property of New Mexico’s citizens. But, even so, the federal Forest Service has failed to take the actions needed to even reduce, much less remove, this overgrowth.

Thus, clearly it could be concluded that the federal government has failed to fulfill one of its most basic duties -- to protect the lives and property of the citizens from a foreseeable and preventable risk of harm. Why then, should this not call into question the federal government’s continued worthiness to lead in the management of New Mexico’s forests?

The Otero County Resolution, Senate Bill 1 and New Mexico’s Petition were enacted to address this debacle. In essence, they were intended to propose the following to the federal government:

(i)            Take the actions needed to materially reduce, if not eliminate, forest overgrowth on the lands you control that produce foreseeable catastrophic forest fires; or

(ii)          Step aside and permit the state of New Mexico to take those actions; or,

(iii)         At the very least, be willing to accept liability for the foreseeable future damages the apparently immutable, but flawed, federal forest management policies will cause New Mexico citizens? 

Imagine, if New Mexico’s elected officials were to find it worth their while to join together and craft a letter to New Mexico’s U.S. Forest Supervisor Elaine Kohrman to officially put her on notice of this proposal by the state of New Mexico.

If it were signed by not only Governor Martinez, but also by all the county commissioners, the state representatives and senators and the U.S. congressmen and senators who represent any citizens exposed to the risk of such fires, it could bear some symbolic resemblance to the Declaration of Independence?

And, imagine further, were Governor Martinez also to then forward a copy of that letter to all of the other Governors of similarly affected Western states. At minimum, would it not likely allow the Governor to structure the future conversation on a national level? Who knows? The Governor might just compel the Forest Service to want to start listening.

But, even if it did not, would that not be perhaps even more interesting?

If I had a home in forests like the Lincoln, the Gila or the Sandias, I would most certainly think so.


Cliff Nichols,
Attorney at Law