What to Know About New Mexico Stream Access

November 6, 2023 By: Spencer Durrant

Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior/Flickr

New Mexico has been in the news lately – along with Colorado – thanks to some court cases surrounding its stream access laws. Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court decided not to overturn a ruling from the New Mexico Supreme Court that stated:

“We hold that the public has the right to recreate and fish in public waters and that this right includes the privilege to do such acts as are reasonably necessary to effect the enjoyment of such right.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn that case, it means that anglers in New Mexico have the right to access waters even if they flow through private property. Similar to Montana and Idaho, anglers have to access that water from a public access point, but can fish through private property so long as they don’t leave the river.

Last week, however, it was reported that New Mexico’s attorney general Raul Torrez is actively pursuing charges against landowners in New Mexico who aren’t allowing public access to their land. In some cases, landowners have been placing concertina wire across the river.

So, what does this mean for land access elsewhere in the West? Well, New Mexico may be a precedent-setting situation, since states like Colorado are embroiled in fights over their land access, as well. What it boils down to, though, is that if a state guarantees its citizens the right to recreate in their rivers and streams, it’s hard for the state to restrict access.

Some states like Utah (where I grew up) even have the right to fish and hunt enshrined in their state constitution, but have yet to allow anglers access to rivers that flow through private property. Cases like what we’ve seen in New Mexico are likely to force more lawsuits in state courts. Ultimately, many access problems in states like Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming may have to be settled in the U.S. Supreme Court if access advocates want to have any hope.

Land access is a tricky issue because, while the idea of fly fishing through the streams here in the Rockies is what most of our sport is based around, so too is much of the identity of the West based around land ownership. Any lasting solution will have to be made with both stakeholders at the table if we’re to avoid any serious problems in the future.