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 is 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.
Chairwoman Sharon Salazar Hickey started the meeting by saying she planned to defer a vote on the applications after critics raised questions about a potential conflict of interest and suggested that she recuse herself from voting because of her daughter being offered a job at the same law firm representing the landowners.
Salazar Hickey’s decision elicited both surprise and frustration from fellow commissioners and people who had traveled to Santa Fe for the public hearing.
While Salazar Hickey was adamant that she and the other commissioners had no conflicts, she said she believed it is important for the attorney general’s office to conduct a review before the commission takes up the stream access issue again at an August meeting.
Marco Gonzales, an attorney for the landowners, said he did not know Salazar Hickey’s daughter and also did not know she got the job offer at his firm, which is the largest in New Mexico and has attorneys licensed across the Southwest. He labeled Friday’s delay of the hearing as a tactic that prejudiced his clients.
Salazar Hickey dismissed that characterization, saying she takes integrity and transparency seriously. “This is the right thing to do,” she said during the meeting. “We cannot take these issues lightly.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, is among the people who have argued that public access to the waterways 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.
Advocates of private property rights have argued that if access to the waterways is opened up 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 fishing outfitters and guides have said their business would be adversely affected.
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. A legal fight over access by anglers to riverbeds on private property is ongoing in Colorado, while a 2019 ruling by the Utah Supreme Court reinforced legislation that allows people to raft, boat or otherwise float on waterways but prohibits them from walking on the land beneath the water without getting permission from landowners.
The New Mexico Supreme Court has been asked by a coalition of anglers, rafters and conservationists to weigh in on the dispute. Their petition still is pending, and some who addressed the commission on Friday said they hoped the court would settle the matter before the Game Commission takes up the issue again in August.
Hickey also noted that the commission has been waiting for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, to appoint a seventh commissioner to fill a vacancy on the panel. It was not immediately clear if the governor plans to do that before the August meeting.