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Wonderlands Becoming Inaccessible

SANTA FE, N.M. — Midway between the small towns of Roy and Trujillo in northeastern New Mexico are 16,030 acres of pristine woodlands nestled among high, narrow mesas surrounded by cliff-lined canyons. The untrammeled Sabinoso Wilderness, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, would be a hiker or a hunter’s wonderland but for one problem.

You can’t get to it.

The entire Sabinoso – even before it was declared a federal wilderness area in 2009 – is landlocked, surrounded by private land, which, so far, has failed to produce any owners willing to allow public access via a road or trail through their property.

It’s not that the BLM hasn’t tried, said James Sippel, the Santa Fe-based head of the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System.

“We felt that we had a landowner or two there that might be willing to grant us access,” Sipple said. “We’ve been working on trying to secure access to the area, but that has not yet materialized.”

The National Landscape Conservation System includes wilderness study areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, wild and scenic rivers and national scenic and historic trails. Of the 72 such areas in New Mexico, only two – the Sabinoso Wilderness and the Cowboy Springs Wilderness Study Area, about 50 miles south of Lordsburg in southern New Mexico – have no public access, Sippel said.

But there are dozens if not hundreds of “landlocked” public lands, administered by both federal and state agencies, across New Mexico, and it’s becoming more common, according to outdoorsmen and wildlife conservationists.

“I’m a lifelong resident and have been hunting and fishing all over the state,” said Oscar Simpson, chairman of the New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “In the last 15 years – especially the last 10 – it’s gotten tremendously worse. Big landowners have come in and bought big parcels of land that we’ve had access to for 50 years, and they shut it down.”

The problem isn’t limited to large landowners by any means.

“New Mexico is the poster child for this because we have so much public land,” said Jeremy Vesbach, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. Like the Sabinoso, many areas of the state are a checkerboard of federal, state, tribal and private parcels – a pattern that lends itself to disputes over access, land and water.

Further complicating the issue is a dearth of information regarding public lands. In fact, it appears nobody knows how many acres of New Mexico’s “public” lands are inaccessible to the public.

“The Government Accountability Office did a survey of inaccessible public lands 20 years ago and found there were 50 million acres (nationwide) that lacked … adequate access,” Vesbach said. “But it hasn’t really been tracked since then.”

Anecdotal evidence, though, suggests hikers, hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts are being locked out of public lands at a rapid rate.

A survey this summer by Southwick and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in wildlife economics statistics, showed that 23 percent of sportsmen polled said they had lost a place to hunt in the past year, Vesbach said. Citing the Southwick survey, he said hunters and anglers consider loss of access to public lands a greater concern than gun control.

All too often, he said, the first public notice of an access point being closed “is when there’s a locked gate.”

“That’s the way it generally happens,” he said. “And then it’s very hard to get it back.”

Simpson said the problem has been especially evident on the eastern edge of the Gila National Forest, where outdoorsmen have slowly lost access to thousands of acres of public land.

Landlocked Sabinoso

“There was never a point in time where access got cut off” to the Sabinoso, said the BLM’s Sippel. Instead, land around the area was slowly sold off to private interests until it was completely surrounded.

In the years since the Sabinoso was declared a wilderness area, BLM officials have tried to acquire a public access route, he said, noting that access routes can be roads or trails. In one case, the landowner of a parcel on the Sabinoso’s southwestern border declined the amount of money BLM could offer for providing access.

“We are bound by certain procedures on establishing what the fair market value is,” Sippel said. “We can’t double that, because we are bound by that appraisal process.”

In another instance, a landowner next to the northeastern portion of the Sabinoso expressed interest in allowing access, but the rugged topography would have made access problematic, Sippel said. Because motor vehicles are prohibited in wilderness areas, any access to the Sabinoso would be limited to hiking or horseback.

“Whether that means you would be allowed to drive right up to the edge of the property or have to walk on an easement for a mile or so, those are details that would have to be worked out” with a willing landowner, Sippel said.

About 12 state-owned parcels also abut the Sabinoso, but they, too, are landlocked by private land.

“With the state land, it’s a much simpler process” to get access, Sippel said. “If we have state land that connected the wilderness to a state highway, for example, it’s a simple process for us to purchase an easement through the state land to get up there. Unfortunately, there’s private land between the state land.”

“At this point, we don’t have any other prospects” for getting people to the Sabinoso, Sippel said, but the BLM will “keep that conversation going as we can.”

Meanwhile, Sippel discourages anyone from trying to reach the Sabinoso.

“We want to be good neighbors with the folks around us, so we really encourage people not to trespass to get out there,” he said. “There is no legal right to get on it at this time, and we don’t want to create a nuisance for the people around it.”

“Hopefully, someday soon, we’ll have legal public access … and we’ll start getting people out there,” he said.

The HUNT Act

Hunters and anglers don’t want to wait for that “someday” and are backing federal legislation to speed things up.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Back Country Hunters & Anglers, the state chapter of Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Horsemen of New Mexico and other groups are lobbying for passage of HR 6086 – a bill introduced last month by Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

“As an avid hunter, I know all too well how important access to our federal public lands is to New Mexico sportsmen,” Heinrich said. “Outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing contributes a great deal to New Mexico’s economy, particularly in our rural communities.”

Heinrich said his “Hunt Unrestricted on National Treasures Act,” or HUNT Act, would open up these areas to sportsmen.

The HUNT Act would:

Because Heinrich’s bill also directs the federal agencies to work with their state counterparts on access, Vesbach said he hopes state land agencies will take similar steps to ensure “public access to all public lands.”

“Loss of public access is a growing concern in the West, and particularly in New Mexico,” said Backcountry Hunters & Anglers chairman Simpson. “We think this is some great legislation because it gets recreational access for everyone …,” he said, not just hunters, anglers and horseback riders.

Heinrich’s bill has been assigned to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committees.

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