U.S. Supreme Court Decision Upholds New Mexico Public Access Law

The court declined to hear arguments from landowners challenging the public’s right to access waterways in the state

WASHINGTON – Public land and water users scored a big win for public access today with the U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement declining to consider arguments brought by New Mexico landowners that would have challenged public waters access in the Land of Enchantment.

The Supreme Court denied a petition by Chama Troutstalkers LLC and Z&T Cattle Company LLC asking for a review of a September decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court that confirmed the public’s right to walk or wade streambeds crossing privately owned lands. This opinion ruling followed the New Mexico court’s unanimous decision in March 2022 to strike down a regulation that allowed landowners to close access to streams flowing through their properties.

The Supreme Court receives thousands of such requests, called a “petition for certiorari,” every year but accepts only a small number. In their petition, the landowners file suit against the three groups that won the New Mexico case – the New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation – and claim that striking down the New Mexico stream access regulation was a “taking.”  

Joel Gay, former chairman and policy coordinator for the New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, hailed the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The highest court in the land has spoken,” said Gay, “and, like the New Mexico Supreme Court before it, has summarily dismissed the baseless arguments of a handful of private landowners in New Mexico who would ban anglers, boaters and others from waters that have been public since time immemorial.

“The justices have sent a simple message to these privileged landowners: that they have to share,” Gay continued. “The waters of New Mexico have been and should always be open to all. It’s written in our state constitution plain as day. With this most recent decision we hope streamside landowners will accept the facts and take down the barriers to public access strung willy-nilly across public streams throughout the state. And if they will not, we hope our governor and the Department of Game and Fish have the backbone to force the issue.”

NM BHA and the co-plaintiffs had filed suit in 2020 asking the court to nullify the anti-access regulation as unconstitutional. The state supreme court decision overturned the so-called Non-Navigability Rule and voided closures adopted previously on several New Mexico streams.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a win for New Mexico, a win for stream access, and a win for public lands users everywhere,” said BHA President and CEO Land Tawney. “Make no mistake: forces are constantly at work to deny citizens our right to access the lands and waters that belong to all of us. Our work will never be over to retain those opportunities, but today we celebrate.”

Tawney further affirmed, “With the Supreme Court’s decision, BHA remains fully committed to working with all stakeholders in New Mexico to find solutions to access challenges that honor the resource, educate the public on wise use practices and balance public and private property rights.”

The New Mexico Constitution, which is based in part on Spanish and Mexican law stemming from the state’s colonial era and differs from other state constitutions, declares that all waters belong to the public. The state Supreme Court spelled out that right to access more than 70 years ago.

Learn more about BHA’s actions in support of public waters access in New Mexico.

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