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Trial underway on White Peak access

SANTA FE – A trial over a 2011 lawsuit that could settle a drawn-out fight over public access to the White Peak area of northeast New Mexico finally started on Monday in Taos.

At issue is whether roads to 30,000 acres of state trust land in Colfax and Mora counties are public rights-of-way or are under the control of rancher David Stanley.

The state Attorney General’s Office maintains that the roads in dispute are historical and protected as public under a 150-year-old federal statute, even if they are on Stanley’s property now.

Stanley disputes that. He and other ranchers have long complained of hunters and others trespassing on or trashing private property to reach the state trust lands.

The White Peak area is considered prime hunting territory for elk and other game. Various efforts to resolve the access dispute have failed in the past.

In 2011, the state Supreme Court nullified controversial land swaps engineered by former State Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons intended to facilitate access.

In 2015, current Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn proposed that the state Game and Fish Department buy 10,000 acres, valued at $27 million, from Stanley, then deed it to the State Land Office to give hunters and anglers unrestricted access for 20 years. But Game and Fish concluded the deal would be illegal.

Last year, Dunn announced completion of a 2.5 mile road that provides a way into part of the White Peak area. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation provided $20,000 to pay for the road, off Mora County Road 10. It traverses state trust land leased by Stanley and others, according to the Land Office.

The 2011 lawsuit initiated by Stanley is in front State District Judge Sarah Backus in Taos. The trial is expected to take about two weeks.