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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham removed a member of the New Mexico Game Commission this week, the latest change for a board wading through a water access controversy.
Jeremy Vesbach said he was not given a reason for his removal. But he said his positions on stream access and hunting licenses for public land clash with landowners who contributed to the governor’s election campaign.
“I’ll keep pushing for the same things I believe in, and I hold out hope that the governor will take the right stand about access to public water and public lands,” Vesbach told the Journal.
A spokeswoman for the governor denied that the removal was spurred by Vesbach’s position on stream access.
Last year, Vesbach and the commission rejected five applications to certify waterway segments on private property as nonnavigable.
Vesbach said “denying access” to rivers and streams violates constitutional rights, and that fences in waterways which flow through private property are hazards.
“There’s just this incredible push to privatize hunting and fishing access to our public land and public water,” he said. “Our public lands are this amazing heritage, and we need to preserve equal access to them.”
Oral arguments are set for March 1 in a state Supreme Court case brought by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and other groups seeking to overturn the nonnavigable rule.
Legal appeals from landowners seeking waterway certifications have been filed in lower courts.
Vesbach is the western lands program director for Western Resource Advocates. His commission term was set to expire at the end of this year.
A letter from Lujan Grisham to Vesbach notified him Tuesday of the early exit.
“I have chosen to exercise my authority under Article V, Section 5 of the New Mexico Constitution to remove you from your Governor-appointed position on the State Game Commission,” Lujan Grisham wrote. “… I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your service on the State Game Commission.”
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett disputed the suggestion that stream access was a motive in the decision.
“The commissioners are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the governor – while there was ultimately a disagreement of mission, we respect and appreciate Mr. Vesbach’s dedicated years of service and advocacy,” Sackett said in an email. “To be clear, Mr. Vesbach’s removal was wholly unrelated to any matters of stream access. We anticipate completing the commission shortly.”
Vesbach’s ousting leaves three vacancies on the seven-member body.
David Soules died in March 2021. Gail Cramer resigned in June 2021.
Lujan Grisham notified Joanna Prukop in 2020 that her term would not be renewed. The governor’s office cited “policy and style” differences.
Prukop said she believes her position against the nonnavigable waterway rule was the reason.
“In my opinion, Joanna was the most knowledgeable, qualified chair in the history of the Game Commission, and once she was removed it certainly wasn’t a surprise that I would follow,” Vesbach said.
The governor tapped Los Alamos National Laboratory employee Sharon Salazar Hickey for Prukop’s seat.
Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, said that she couldn’t comment specifically on Vesbach’s removal. But she “appreciates (the governor) really trying to balance needs of different stakeholders.”
“We believe that the rules and regulations governing stream access in New Mexico have worked for decades and should remain in place as a nice balance of public rights and private rights,” Allison said.
The state should better support land managers in their efforts to protect wildlife habitat and restore watersheds, Allison said.
Vesbach was the New Mexico Wildlife Federation director for more than a decade. The organization called his removal “a deep blow to our state.”
“This move by the governor underscores again the need for real reform to insulate commissioners from undue political influence,” NMWF Executive Director Jesse Deubel said.
The commission will meet Friday at 9 a.m. in Santa Fe. Stream access legal cases will be discussed in executive session.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.