As an engaged citizenry, we are accustomed to fighting for the rights we deserve. Part of that, unfortunately, is fighting for rights that were taken away, often hastily and discretely, often related to protecting the interests of campaign donors.
So is the case with stream access in New Mexico – a right that was guaranteed by water law when New Mexico was still a territory, reiterated in our state constitution in 1911, backed by a 1945 Supreme Court opinion, and upheld again in 2014 by another opinion by then-Attorney General Gary King.
Last year ProgressNow NM’s Education Fund helped bring attention to this issue through a series of commercials and with YOUR help.
More than 100 years of state history was quickly unwound in 2015, when Senate Bill 226 passed the Senate by a wide margin in the early afternoon of the next-to-last day of the 60-day session, then passed the House on a party-line vote that evening, and signed into law by the governor a few days later.
Witness the power of out-of-state money maxing out donations into New Mexico politics. The donor behind this movida was a Texas businessman named Dan Perry, who had bought up thousands of acres of New Mexico land, now charging $2,000 to fish the streams many New Mexicans hold as their birthright.
That same businessman, wisely looking to the future, with a now Democrat-controlled House, and a new governor eventually making his or her way to the fourth floor, created the Habitat Conservation Initiative, with the focus of protecting private property rights. In 2016, HCI maxed out donations for the 2016 election cycle, to four Republican-affiliated PACs, to then-House Majority Leader, Nate Gentry, and more than $70,000 in donations to other Republican and Democrat lawmakers.
New Mexicans were and are stripped of their rights to help pad the income of a wealthy Texan and an uphill battle to win back what has been ours since before New Mexico was a state. Waterways in New Mexico have always been public, allowing people to fish and kayak, appealing to our multigenerational outdoor heritage and our growing outdoor recreation economy. Our children and grandchildren’s ability to access our public waterways, to access the same heritage we’ve known for generations, has been stripped away so that a few wealthy out-of-staters can increase their wealth.
The glimmer of hope is that the law – despite the 2015 constitutional amendment – is still with the will of the people. Recently, New Mexico Game and Fish postponed a rulemaking that intended to guide property owners on how they could post “No Trespass” signs or erect fences to stop anglers turned criminals from wading up their “privately-owned” waterways.
No word from Game and Fish what the plan is, but our reckoning is that they got an earful from the tens of thousands of New Mexicans who regularly enjoy their constitutional right to use publicly-owned streams, or perhaps they got a whiff of what it may look like for the state’s $268 million per year sport fishing industry to move over to Colorado or Montana, where public access to non-navigable water is still, and likely always will be, a right.
We remain optimistic that New Mexicans will again have what is ours, at least in the form of stream access, but the cost should be concerning to taxpayers. If this particular Texas businessman is gearing up for a fight, it will be on our dime to get back what is ours, what should’ve never been on the negotiating table in the first place.