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Judge’s ruling opens access to White Peak public land

SANTA FE – A judge has ruled in favor of public use of several roads across private property that provide access to prime hunting territory on public land in the White Peak area of northeast New Mexico.

State District Court Judge Sarah Backus of Taos agreed with the state Attorney General’s Office that use of roads across the property of rancher David Stanley is protected by a federal law, dating back to the 19th century, that maintains for public use of historically established routes if the roads or trails existed when the surrounding property was owned by the federal government.

Citing testimony from area residents who said they had traveled into the White Peak area as far back as the 1940s, Backus said the state had provided sufficient proof that the roads were historical routes. Land patents dating back to the 1800s were discussed at trial earlier this year.

At issue is whether roads to more than 50,000 acres of state trust land in Colfax and Mora counties are public rights-of-way or are under the control of Stanley, the rancher. The lawsuit dates from 2011, but the fight over access to White Peak territory has been an issue for at least two decades.

The office of Attorney General Hector Balderas hailed Backus’ ruling from last week as “a major court victory on behalf of millions of New Mexicans.”

“Access to and use of our state’s public lands is a crucial part of the cultural heritage of New Mexicans,” Balderas said in the news release. “New Mexicans have hunted, fished, camped and spent time on our public lands near White Peak for more than a century. Judge Backus’s decision reaffirms the right of every New Mexican to enjoy the natural beauty of our state.”

Attorneys for Stanley, in their final arguments, said a ruling against Stanley would set a “dangerous precedent.”

“No matter how long you’ve owned your property, no matter if prior quiet title suits have been litigated on the property without contest for over 80 years, the State of New Mexico can always seek to establish (federal statute) Section 932 roads and public roads by prescription on your property without compensation,” their court filing said.

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, for instance, the state Supreme Court, nullified controversial land swaps engineered by former State Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons that were 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.