Published: 1:35 pm, Thu. May. 18th, 2017Updated: 1:32 pm
In a room full of opposition, the Chaves County Commission Thursday voted to close the primary access road to Hunting Unit 32 and thousands of acres of public lands.
The now-private five-mile stretch of Felix Canyon Road served as the primary public access point to thousands of acres of recreational areas and public land, which hundreds of local sportsmen and women frequent every year, the home to trophy mule deer and Barbary sheep.
The New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF) says the closure of the road violates Chaves County’s own stated road closure policy, which states that the commission “shall not permanently vacate a county road when the road will, in the foreseeable future, be necessary, beneficial, or valuable for public use as a county road … if it serves as primary access to recreational areas and public lands.”
“There is no other way around this — this was both an insult to constituents who showed to this meeting, and a blatant land grab,” said Garrett Vene Klasen, executive director of the NMWF. “With utter disregard and disrespect to every person in that chamber, the Chaves County Commission not only acted in direct opposition to the interests of sportsmen and women, but to all Chaves County residents and New Mexicans who have paid to maintain Felix Canyon Road and who deserve fair access to the public lands that they own.”
On April 26, the NMWF sent a letter to the Chaves County Commission stating its strong opposition to the closure of the road, citing the harmful impact it would have to the Chaves County economy and the overwhelming desire of local sportsmen to keep the road open. The NMWF says it did not receive a response. Numerous other area outdoorspeople also say they contacted the commission in opposition.
The Bureau of Land Management and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish had also publicly opposed the road closure and asked the commission not to close the road at a previous meeting, citing the yet-unsubstantiated claims and concerns of the private land owner asking for its closure.
The landowner, Mike Casabonne, has maintained poaching and property crimes, such as trespassing and vandalism, were what prompted him to request the closure. He pointed out that while the closure would require roundabout travel to the public lands in question via alternate routes, it would not prevent their access entirely.
“We are furious that the commission has chosen to serve the interest of one private land owner over the interests of the majority of their constituents; this is a blatant disregard for the public and a punch in the face to sportsmen in Chaves County,” said Joe Rivera, a sportsman from Artesia who has written several letters to the commission asking them to keep the road open.
“Unfortunately, we can’t say that we’re surprised, because it seemed that the commissioners had their mind made up to close this road from the very beginning,” said Roswell sportsman Mark Pantuso. “They were not interested in what the public had to say — their own constituents.
“This is not just about closing a public road, this goes much deeper. This shows that the commission is out of touch with the majority of its constituents and shows a blatant disregard for our way of life in Southeast New Mexico. Many of us hunt and fish here, and we deserve to have access, regardless of how many ranches we own or how much money we have. We should have a voice, too.”
Some of the opposing individuals present at Thursday’s meeting indicated they would be looking into appeals options that might overturn or delay the closure.
Artesians in attendance said the assembly was informed that public comments to the commission were “not going to happen today.” The board stated prior public meetings held on the subject were sufficient in terms of hearing citizens’ concerns.
Following the vote, Casabonne thanked the commission for “standing up for private property rights.”