By Sen. Martin Heinrich
If you’re like me, fall is your favorite season of the year. And if you read Backcountry Journal, there’s a pretty good chance that you feel most alive when the elk begin to bugle and the aspen leaves turn golden.
Last autumn, I was lucky enough to draw a bull elk tag in one of the premier public land units in my home state of New Mexico. This unit is part of the Gila National Forest, where Aldo Leopold formed many of the ideas that guide the modern conservation ethic. It’s a stunning landscape of rugged mountains, ponderosa forest and open grassy parks.
There is one mountain in particular that I knew held some mighty old bulls. My friends and I climbed that mountain, slept on the ground near its summit, and then glassed up exactly the kind of bull I was hoping for. He had eight points on one side and was broken off above the fourth point on the other side – and he was massive. Some people measure their bulls in inches, but I knew that, more importantly, this guy was a freezer filler. After a long stalk and a well-placed 291-yard shot, he tumbled over and the real work of packing him off the mountain began.
A lot goes into a successful backcountry adventure. There is the luck of drawing a tag in the first place, followed by the skills of scouting, glassing and successfully stalking a wary old king like mine. But whether your adventure involves hunting or fishing, it probably rests on top of a foundation made up of public land, public waters and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation – which is the envy of the world.
Through my work in the United States Senate, I have been proud to stand alongside a powerful coalition of sportsmen and women from New Mexico and all across our country – including the members of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers – to pass federal investments in the conservation of critical wildlife habitat and unlock more recreational access on our treasured public lands.
If we keep working together and raise our voices, we can ensure that many years from now, our grandkids, and their grandkids, will learn the very traditions that have enriched our lives.
In recent years, hunters and anglers have played a vital role in passing monumental, bipartisan legislation including the Great American Outdoors Act, which fully and permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund and invested in the restoration of visitor infrastructure at our national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges. Your letters, emails and phone calls are the reason that Republicans and Democrats can come together and make outdoors bills a unifying force in an often divided Congress.
But we cannot take any of this for granted. Improving and maintaining public access to our public lands is vital to protecting our ability to hunt and fish.
That’s why I have been hard at work unlocking public access to remarkable new public lands.
Thanks in large part to federal dollars from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, the public will soon be able to access the single greatest addition to public land in New Mexico in a generation. This 54,000 acres of elk and turkey habitat dramatically expands New Mexico’s Marquez Wildlife Area.
It was only a few years ago that the public could not access any of the rimrock canyons in northeastern New Mexico’s Sabinoso Wilderness – because it was entirely surrounded by private lands. But after years of effort, and a generous acquisition by the Trust for Public Land, New Mexicans recently welcomed the largest wilderness land donation in U.S. history, which will unlock greater public access and nearly double the size of the wilderness area.
Unfortunately, threats to limit or prevent public access to public lands and waters are not limited to any state. In recent years, hunters and anglers in states like Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and even Missouri have all faced down threats to public access. That includes a dangerous lawsuit a wealthy private landholder in Wyoming brought against hunters who “corner-crossed” a checkerboard of public and private lands to access public lands without even setting foot on their private property.
We have to show up to every battle if we are going to defeat the big money, private interests who are eager as ever to post “No Trespassing” signs around our favorite places to hunt and fish or even sell off our public lands off to the highest bidder.
In New Mexico, I have been especially focused on preserving the public’s right to access our public streams. The New Mexico Constitution expressly provides that rivers, streams and lakes in our state belong to the public, including waters that flow through private lands. In 2017, our State Game Commission passed an erroneous rule that allowed private landowners to prohibit public access to waters flowing on their lands if the waters are “non-navigable” – which was contrary to the state constitution. It impacted the vast majority of New Mexico’s streams, which – whether they flow all the time, intermittently or just in response to rain events – are not “navigable.”
The rule upended anglers’, boaters’ and other recreationists’ right to access our public streams, putting a halt to activities that have long been enjoyed by New Mexicans throughout the state and that drew visitors from both near and far to contribute to our outdoor recreation economy. That’s why I joined former Sen. Tom Udall to file an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief before the New Mexico Supreme Court to defend New Mexicans’ right under the state constitution to access public surface waters.
Last September, in a landmark ruling, the New Mexico Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutional rights of all New Mexicans to our public waters. This was an enormous victory for people who care about our history, our culture and our natural resources. Public waters will remain public. Many New Mexicans worked hard to make this victory happen, but it would not have been possible without the engagement of sportsmen and women.
Last year, I also welcomed the passage of the Modernizing Access to our Public Land (MAPLand) Act, which will require that public lands be mapped in a standardized, digitized format across all four public lands agencies in a significant degree of detail.
The way that public lands, buildings and other assets are currently catalogued by federal agencies is a confusing, over-complicated mess. Creating a one-stop shop for outfitters and sportsmen and women to navigate mapping records and other data will greatly aid outdoor recreation and improve hunting and fishing access in the places that we all own.
I would also encourage you to utilize a new internet-based portal created by the Bureau of Land Management to more easily and efficiently nominate public lands that are currently inaccessible but could provide valuable opportunities for hunting, fishing and other recreational activities. This new portal is the direct result of the HUNT Act, a bipartisan law that I helped to pass in 2019, which requires federal agencies to seek the public’s input on identifying lands where there is no legal public access or where access is significantly restricted, in order to help create a list of parcels where access can be improved.
As we begin a new Congress, I will continue working with Republicans and Democrats to pass my bipartisan wildlife and habitat conservation bill, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. RAWA will invest in proactive, on-the-ground conservation work led by state and Tribal wildlife agencies to support the long-term health of fish and wildlife and their habitat. The habitat restoration supported by RAWA will ensure the future of abundant American wildlife, from bumblebees and bison to sandhill cranes and cutthroat trout.
I am enormously proud of all that sportsmen and women have accomplished together. If we keep working together and raise our voices, we can ensure that many years from now, our grandkids, and their grandkids, will learn the very traditions that have enriched our lives. And they will enjoy the same public lands and wildlife that bring our lives meaning and contentment.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Backcountry Journal.