New Mexico Supreme Court Rules in Support of Public Access to Public Waters

News for Immediate Release
Sept. 2, 2022
Contact: Katie McKalip, 406-240-9262, [email protected]


Decision confirms the public’s right to walk or wade streambeds that cross privately owned lands

SANTA FE, N.M. – The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled again in support of public access to public waters in a Thursday decision that confirms the public’s right to walk or wade streambeds crossing privately owned lands.

The opinion ruling by the court follows its unanimous decision in March to strike down a regulation that allowed landowners to close access to streams flowing through their properties. The New Mexico Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, along with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico, had filed suit in 2020 asking the court to nullify the regulation as unconstitutional. That decision overturned the so-called Non-Navigability Rule and also voided closures adopted previously on several New Mexico streams.

Today these groups celebrated the court’s most recent ruling as a reaffirmation of a longstanding public right in New Mexico.

“The New Mexico chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is pleased to see the final opinion on stream access in our state,” said Joel Gay, New Mexico BHA’s policy advisor and former chairman, “but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to either anglers or landowners. In 1945 the New Mexico Supreme Court issued much the same opinion – that all waters in our state are owned by the public and may be used for fishing, boating and other recreation provided the public doesn’t trespass over private property to enter or exit the stream.

“New Mexicans have always had this right of access,” continued Gay, who lives in Albuquerque. “It’s a shame that for decades streamside landowners and NMDGF said otherwise. Our thanks to the Supreme Court for reminding everyone of that fact.”

“The rivers of New Mexico are unparalleled nationwide,” said Hattie Johnson, Southern Rockies stewardship director for American Whitewater. “The state constitution and legal precedent have always provided access to rivers and streams for recreation and fishing since statehood. The decision from the Supreme Court today explicitly protects those longstanding rights which provide for the flourishing, growing and inclusive outdoor recreation community. We are so proud of our affiliate club, Adobe Whitewater, and the other petitioners on the case. These dedicated paddlers, anglers and outdoors people have fought tirelessly to protect New Mexicans’ inherent rights.”

“Going forward, we have to evaluate existing statutes, rules and policies to see what’s applicable and where new ones may be needed to create a workable system that protects both public and private rights,” said John Crenshaw, board president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “The NMWF looks forward to engaging in that conversation with stakeholders across the spectrum of the issue and is grateful to the NM Supreme Court for the clarity of its decision.”

Review a timeline of New Mexico public waters access.

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.

BHA President and CEO Land Tawney heralded the court’s ruling as a win for New Mexico – and a win for public access.

“This is a great day for New Mexicans from all walks of life,” Tawney said. “This decision solidifies that we the people own and have the right to access our public waters. A big, hearty thank you goes to those individuals who stepped up. Your courage and steadfastness breathe hope to others who are facing similar challenges in other states. Let’s go fishing!”

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About Thomas Plank