'Open for adventure' - Albuquerque Journal

‘Open for adventure’

Ortega Mesa within the White Peak area east of Angel Fire has been opened up by the State Land Office to dispersed camping for hunters. (Courtesy of the State Land Office)

Under a pilot program just launched through New Mexico state trust lands, hunters using the White Peak area near Angel Fire may have the opportunity to help open public land to more recreationists.

Through an easement signed in March with the New Mexico Game Commission, licensed hunters and fishermen opened up some State Land Office acreage for use. Under that easement, dispersed camping for hunters using the White Peak area is available for successful applicants, said Craig Johnson, outdoor recreation program manager for the state Land Office.

The free camping provision would coincide with the upcoming deer and elk hunting seasons, and would give hunters up to 14 days to camp near roads or in their vehicles in the areas of Ortega Mesa, White Peak Road, Spruce North and Spruce South.

“The launch of these pilot programs is the culmination of a long, thoughtful process from our staff and the working groups aimed to increase access to state trust land, as well as to enhance the overall hunting experience for New Mexico sportspeople,” said Stephanie Garcia Richard, commissioner of public lands.

It is the first step, she said, in expanding public access to up to 8.8 million acres the State Land Office holds.

“After a season with the pilots in place, we will see where we were successful, as well as the areas where there is room for improvement. Our overall goal is to take what we learn and move forward next year with longer term options for camping and backpacking for sportspeople on state trust land.”

A similar pilot program allows hunters access to backpack camping in the Luera Mountains southwest of Magdalena.

Prior to the easement, access “did not exist,” Johnson said.

But it has been Garcia Richard’s mandate to “make state trust land open for adventure,” Johnson said. “She’s doing that by expanding recreation access so sportspeople can more easily enjoy some of the amazing places on state land.”

The State Land Office’s primary function is to generate revenue for schools and hospitals, with 98% of that coming from grazing leases.

“So it’s a delicate balance for state trust lands,” Johnson said. “We are working with Game & Fish and (agricultural) lessees, so it’s also a partnership to open up these other lands.”

With COVID-19 forcing many people into the outdoors, it has a negative impact on the lands. Many users have been unfamiliar with the proper etiquette of removing trash and maintaining the pristine nature of the forests.

So one of the aspects of these pilot trials is to see how the users care for land, Johnson said, adding that, in general, hunters have been solid caretakers of the land.

“Our hope is the people who get these permits for hunting are responsible users of the land, and then we can expand beyond just the hunting community,” he said. “It’s crucial to emphasize the behavior we expect people to comply with. Leave no trace land ethic, careful with campfires and respect for private property.”

Campfires are, of course, a sensitive topic and are permitted only when allowed in the particular surrounding state forest.

“And then you must use commonsense practice,” Johnson said. “Clearing areas of flammables and making sure the campfire is cold to the touch before you leave.”

Additionally, users must adhere to other commonsense rules.

Those receiving permits are responsible for knowing their maps, staying on established roads, closing gates, not cutting fences, and not damaging structures and equipment, he said.

Those interested in taking advantage of the pilot program can fill out an application online at nmstatelands.org/hunting-pilot-programs-dispersed-camping-backpacking.

“The applications and phone calls have been flooding in,” Johnson said. “We’re thrilled with the level of interest because it is an indication of high demand. The initial results have been phenomenal. We think this will be success and, if it is, we can continue on.”

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