A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision is welcome news for New Mexico anglers and public land users. The Supreme Court declined to hear the arguments brought by two landowners seeking to overturn rulings from the New Mexico Supreme Court that prevented landowners from restricting public access to waterways that run across private land. The petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was brought forward by Chama Troutstalkers LLC and Z&T Cattle Company LLC. The landowners filed suit against three conservation groups: The New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico, and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
“The highest court in the land has spoken, and like the New Mexico Supreme Court before it, has summarily dismissed the baseless arguments of a handful of private landowners in New Mexico who would ban anglers, boaters, and others from waters that have been public since time immemorial,” said Joel Gay, former policy coordinator for the New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, in a press release. “The justices have sent a simple message to these privileged landowners: that they have to share.”
The Supreme Court’s dismissal follows years of controversy over stream access in New Mexico. In 1911, the state adopted a constitution that stated that every “natural stream, perennial or torrential, within the state of New Mexico” belonged to the public. But at some point, that public right fell to the wayside and private landowners began blocking access to public water on private land.
Then, in 2014, a law student raised the issue and the New Mexico Attorney General made an official statement in support of public access. Private interests responded by pushing a law through the state legislature that allowed landowners to prevent access to certain streams depending on “navigability” in 2015. In March of 2022, the New Mexico Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. In September 2022, the court doubled down on its opinion, confirming that the public had the right to walk and wade streams that crossed private land, though they are not allowed to walk across private land to reach the streams. This was what the decision that litigators challenged in a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was recently dismissed.
Lawyers from Backcountry Hunters & Anglers tell Field & Stream that the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling is strong—but that they don’t expect attacks on public access from some private landowners to stop. Possible attempts to limit public access could involve restrictions from local governments, enacting legislation that narrowly defines “recreational use,” and keeping barriers up to public waterways—forcing further litigation. Still, conservation leaders are celebrating the recent victories.
“This decision represents a huge, positive movement for public access broadly, and stream and water access specifically,” says Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Communications Director Katie McKalip. “It sends a message that public access matters—and that private interests can’t expect to be able to push aside long-established access laws to advance their own personal interests.”