ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico regulators on Thursday rejected the requests of landowners who sought to restrict public access to streams and rivers that flow through their properties, marking just the latest development in a legal battle that likely won’t end until the state Supreme Court weighs in.
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The state Game Commission voted to deny the applications, citing language in the state constitution that implies all waters in New Mexico belong to the public.
The decision was welcomed by outdoor groups and conservationists. However, an attorney for the landowners argued that his clients’ private property rights were being violated.
While the debate over stream access has been ongoing across the West for years, the New Mexico Supreme Court could provide more clarity once it rules on a pending petition filed by a coalition of anglers, rafters and conservationists.
The coalition contends that the public has the constitutional right to fish, boat or otherwise recreate in any stream so long as they did not trespass across private land to get there.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, is among those who say public access should not be limited, regardless of whether streams are classified as non-navigable. Many waterways in New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest flow intermittently and depend on snow or storm runoff.
Heinrich commended the commission for its decision, saying Thursday that access has long been enjoyed by generations of New Mexicans and is part of the state’s culture and outdoor economy.
Advocates of private property rights have warned that if waterways are opened up, property values will decline and there would be less interest by owners to invest in conserving tracts of land along streams. Some fishing outfitters and guides have said their business will be adversely affected.