ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The debate over whether the public has a right to fish or float streams and other waterways that flow through private property has percolated for decades in many western U.S. states, and it’s reaching a boiling point in New Mexico.
The state Game Commission, which oversees New Mexico’s wildlife management agency and sets hunting and fishing rules for the state, was scheduled Friday to take up the applications of landowners who want to keep the public from accessing their stretches of streams without permission by certifying the waterways as non-navigable.
The commission has the discretion to accept, reject or take any other action to resolve the applications. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, is among those who argue that public access shouldn’t be limited, regardless of whether a stream is classified as navigable. Many waterways in New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest are intermittent and depend on snow or storm runoff.
Questions also have been raised about whether the commission chairwoman has a conflict of interest in the case. Some critics say she should recuse herself from voting on the applications due to a family connection to a law firm that is representing the landowners.
Advocates of private property rights argue that if access is opened in New Mexico, property values will decline and there would be less interest by private owners to invest in conserving tracts of land along streams. Some outfitters and guides say their business also would be affected.
The New Mexico Supreme Court has been asked by a coalition of sportsmen and conservationists to weigh in on the dispute. Their petition still is pending. Public access laws vary widely across the West. In Montana, courts over the years have expanded the public’s right to use steams that cross private land. But access is prohibited in Colorado without the landowners’ permission.