In the seemingly never-ending battle to keep public lands in public hands, those who would rather see public lands privatized or inaccessible to the general public consistently find new ways to close or lock up access to the public.
Closing public, taxpayer-owned and taxpayer-maintained roads is not a new tactic for public land foes — but it’s one that’s dangerously gaining steam across New Mexico.
The premise to lock up or restrict access is simple: get a private property owner with a public access route on their land to petition their County Commission to vacate a section, or all of a road that provides access to large sections of public land.
That’s the case today in Chaves County, where a longtime rancher with a stretch of public road on his property successfully petitioned the County Commission to vacate and close a 5-mile stretch of the historic Felix Canyon Road to restrict public access to Unit 32.
Now these “movidas” are often successful for many reasons, the primary reason being that public land users, including sportsmen and women, don’t show up or participate in the public process to protest the closure. So unknowingly, roads and routes that provide primary access to public lands in New Mexico are closed in haste and with little public knowledge until a family drives up for their annual hunt and encounters a locked gate, and disappointed kids and parents.
But that’s not the case in Chaves County, in fact, sportsmen and women showed up in droves to protest the closure of Felix Canyon Road. We showed up, too.
During the County Commission’s mandatory inspection of the road to be closed, we showed up to support local sportsmen and women and to talk to the Chaves County Commissioners and private land owner. Rather than a civil discussion about the facts and about the importance of keeping the road open, local sportsmen and women were shut out, not even allowed to talk to their County Commissioners about the road they pay to maintain.
So we asked all those in attendance — over 25 sportsmen and women — for a show of hands of who wanted to keep the road open. All of the sportsmen and women in attendance raised their hands, a move that prompted someone to yell “We’re not voting on anything, and we’re not taking public comment.” The Commissioners jumped in their SUVs and hurriedly sped off, it was clear to us their mind was made up.
This prompted us at the New Mexico Wildlife Federation to send a strong letter to the Chaves County commission vehemently opposing the closure of Felix Canyon Road and asking them to reconsider. We did not receive a response.
And at the following Chaves County Commission meeting, sportsmen and women again packed the County chambers to protest the road closure, only to have their voices and opinions completely disregarded. The Commission — as we all knew they would — voted to close the road, primary access to Unit 32 for sportsmen from Artesia and Roswell. Unit 32 is enjoyed by local families, and sportsmen and women from around the state, and is known for its trophy mule deer and abundant barbary sheep. We’ve hunted there and harvested a barbary sheep ourselves.
So it’s clear to us that those who seek to close off public lands, to restrict or eliminate access, have found a successful way to do so, and it’s up to us as sportsmen and women and public land users to get involved in the local process. We hear that more road closure petitions are coming, and we’ll be ready, as will a new group of sportsmen and women in the area that recently formed to protect their interests called ACCESS New Mexico.
The fight for Felix Canyon Road isn’t over yet. We are working with our partners at ACCESS New Mexico to gain primary access back to this important swatch of public lands, for the benefit of our families and future generations, and hope to have a positive update in the next edition of the Outdoor Reporter. Please join us as the fight to keep it public continues! This is your land. If you’d like to help or get involved, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.