Advocacy | Angler Conservation Program | Conservation

NM streams debate: Court can balance recreation, conservation

Photo by Josh Duplechian

As first seen in the Albuquerque Journal.

By: Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited and Harris Klein, New Mexico Trout Unlimited Council Chair

Soon, the New Mexico Supreme Court will settle the controversy about what the state Constitution has to say about the extent of the public’s right to access streams throughout the state. Legal questions need resolution, but underlying them are important practical questions for those who love the streams and rivers that flow through the Land of Enchantment and the fish and wildlife they support.

Should New Mexicans have the right to wade, float and swim in all the state’s waterways? And if that’s the case, what does that mean for private landowners?

For Trout Unlimited (TU) members, stream access is a critical priority – not just because we love to fish, but because the opportunity to enjoy New Mexico’s waterways enhances quality of life for everyone, and a public that enjoys our streams and rivers will help care for them.

As for the second question, we are guided by a deep-rooted respect for ranchers and farmers, some whose families have been on the land for many generations, as well as other private landowners who work with us to protect and restore rivers and streams. Over the decades, we’ve learned that collaborating with private landowners yields great conservation outcomes – and that’s exactly why we need to craft a broadly supported stream access policy that diminishes discord between landowners and recreationists.

While there has been much anxiety and debate, case law and New Mexico Attorney General’s Office opinions have made it clear access to our waters is embedded in the New Mexico Constitution. This means that anglers and boaters have the right to wade rivers and streams that, like other natural resources, are held in trust and managed by the state.

We believe that interpretation will be reinforced by the Supreme Court. It’s what is best for anglers and everyone who cares about the long-term conservation of New Mexico’s waterways. It would be consistent with the laws in many other western states, where public stream access has been permitted for decades, providing recreational opportunity that enhances quality of life and drives economic activity.

Allowing public access while protecting stream ecosystems and respecting private property will require a commitment from all of us – landowners, recreationists, and state agencies – as well as funding to achieve both access and conservation goals.

Long-time TU partners in the ranch, farm, acequia, Native American, recreation and environmental communities are critical to native and wild trout protection and recovery in New Mexico. Trout Unlimited is committed to working with these allies and state policymakers to strengthen our natural resource policies and secure additional financial resources, with a shared goal of building a model state stream access program that better protects and restores New Mexico’s waters.

In light of the small size of many New Mexico trout streams and their susceptibility to overharvest and overuse, TU will work with these diverse stakeholders to collaboratively develop strategies that protect native and wild trout, improve habitat and stream flows, leverage private and public resources to benefit both private lands and public resources, provide a better angler experience, and reduce user conflict.

If we work together, New Mexico can be a model across the western United States for managing public access to rivers and streams. The state already has success stories in the Valles Caldera and the Pecos Monument, where managed access has reduced angler pressure and yielded outstanding fishing.

Trout Unlimited is focused on the long game: working with a diverse group of stakeholders to ensure that we have strong public access, healthy rivers and streams and quality fisheries. That will only happen if we’re all committed to making access work for anglers, landowners and all New Mexicans.