Private waters versus public access debate

What is at stake for fisheries health, recreation, tourism and economy

By Jacob Clemens
Posted 1/17/20

New Mexico is currently deciding the fate of recreational public access on a large percentage of rivers and streams. A recent opinion by the attorney general has landowners outraged at the possibility that the public may have access to waters flowing through their lands.

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Private waters versus public access debate

What is at stake for fisheries health, recreation, tourism and economy

Posted

New Mexico is currently deciding the fate of recreational public access on a large percentage of rivers and streams. A recent opinion by the attorney general has landowners outraged at the possibility that the public may have access to waters flowing through their lands. Recreationalists and supporters of public lands argue stream access is a legal right for all to enjoy. With expanded stream access likely coming, it's time to consider the impact it will have and what we can do to prepare.

In a recent Department of Game and Fish public meeting that spotlighted the access issue, the Game Commission read the opinion of the attorney general:

"The constitution does not allow an interpretation of 19.31.22 NMAC that would exclude the public from using public water on or running through private property for recreational uses. … Subsequently, the objective listed in 19.31.22.6 NMAC … is not in constitutional compliance and cannot be enforced. Additionally, any language … which attempts to prohibit access to the public waters of New Mexico is unconstitutional and unenforceable."

While we await the final verdict, which could take years in the courts, I would like to point out some key issues surrounding fisheries management and what is at stake for New Mexico's ecosystems health, economic future and cultural practices.

Currently, private waters play an important role in the health of New Mexico's fisheries. They serve as refuges for wild fish populations to recover from overharvest as well as benefit stream health via privately funded conservation projects to improve habitat. If New Mexico opens access, can the quality and health of fisheries be maintained? Will the state impose catch and release regulations and/or limits on fish harvests on these waters? Will the state have the resources to enforce regulations if they impose them? We need to address these questions before opening up access or we may see a decline in fisheries health across the state.

As a fishing guide and lifelong angler in New Mexico, I would love to see catch and release and/or low limit harvest regulations on as much water as possible. However, it is also important to respect the cultural practice of taking fish as many New Mexicans enjoy eating the trout they catch.

Considering both perspectives, here are some suggestions for regulation changes:

• Make distinctions between wild fish and stocked fish. Let's protect fish that reproduce in the wild by releasing them or limiting harvests while continuing to allow for harvest of stocked rainbow trout. If people know what to look for, the difference between wild and stocked fish is obvious. Restrictions should also limit take of large wild fish, which have the most value for sport as well as reproductive potential.

• Spend more money on enforcement. To limit poaching and overharvest, New Mexico should invest in more wardens to consistently engage the public. Wardens are the best way to educate the populace about the rules and why they exist. For reference, I have only had my license checked once in the 25 years I have been fishing in New Mexico.

Certain other states have strong regulations protecting wild fish as well as strong enforcement programs, which translate into both healthy fisheries and significant economic advantages. If we rise to the challenge and create strong management policy geared toward fisheries health, opening stream access could be great.

If we get it wrong, however, we could see the degradation of some of the best fishing in the West and suffer the consequences for not only our fisheries but recreation, tourism and the economy as well.

Jacob Clemens is from Santa Fe and is a lifelong angler in New Mexico. He owns and operates Artful Angler, a fly-fishing guide service out of Northern New Mexico. This opinion piece was submitted to other publications.

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