Editorial: White Peak access ruling a win for all New Mexicans

It’s been a long, drawn-out battle, but a ruling handed down by a district judge in Taos clears the way for public use of several roads across private property to access vast tracts of state trust land in northeast New Mexico.

The White Peak area in Colfax and Mora counties is considered prime hunting territory for elk and other game. The battle over access to the area has been playing out in courtrooms and elsewhere for at least two decades.

District Judge Sarah Backus’ ruling is a huge victory for all New Mexicans, although we should hold off on celebrating until we know whether the ruling will be appealed.

Fighting for public access to the area was Attorney General Hector Balderas, who hailed the decision 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. “New Mexicans have hunted, fished, camped and spent time on our public lands near White Peak for more than a century. Judge Backus’ decision reaffirms the right of every New Mexican to enjoy the natural beauty of our state.”

The case centered on whether roads to more than 50,000 acres of state trust land were public rights-of-way or under the control of rancher David Stanley.

The AG’s Office argued 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 and other ranchers have long complained of hunters and others trespassing on or trashing private property to reach the state trust lands. We agree that’s a problem that needs to be addressed, but it simply does not equate with depriving the public access to public land and thus turning tens of thousands of acres into a rancher’s private game reserve.

Attorneys for Stanley also argued that ruling against Stanley would set a “dangerous precedent” and said “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.”

In the end, Backus agreed with the AG’s office, finding that use of roads across Stanley’s property is protected by a federal law dating to the 19th century that maintains for public use historically established routes if the roads or trails existed when the surrounding property was owned by the federal government.

This dispute has dragged on for far too long, costing Stanley and taxpayers untold sums to litigate. For the good of all involved, the parties should move on down the road and allow Backus’ ruling to stand.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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