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New Mexico Supreme Court Affirms Constitutional Right to Paddle Rivers

Posted: 03/04/2022
By: Hattie Johnson and NM Paddlers Coalition

SANTA FE, New Mexico.  Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the State Constitution does not permit New Mexico’s waterways to be “privatized” and sealed off from public access. The lead petitioner on the case, Adobe Whitewater Club (AWC), is an affiliate club of American Whitewater. AWC and copetitioners from the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers New Mexico chapter, were represented in this case by Santa Fe based attorneys Gene Gallegos and Seth Cohen. AWC and AW, in addition to New Mexico Rivers Outfitters Association and American Canoe Association are founding members of the New Mexico Paddlers Coalition who have worked diligently on this effort from its inception. 


After a one-hour hearing and 15 minutes of deliberation, Chief Justice Vigil announced that all five justices agreed that the issue was of “great public interest”, the Petitioners had standing, the Game Commission rule is unconstitutional, and all certificates issued to the priviatizers are void. The Court issued a prohibitive writ of mandamus to the State Game Commission. The State Game Commission met yesterday in an emergency meeting immediately following the Court’s decision. It rescinded the offending 2018 privatization rule. 


The Court voided the five river privatization certificates issued by the State Game Commission in the closing hours of the Susanna Martinez administration. Those certificates had authorized landowners closure of boatable sections of the Upper Rio Chama and the Upper Pecos River. 


The Supreme Court affirmed New Mexican’s constitutional right to paddle all of New Mexico’s rivers and streams. They said the water in New Mexico’s rivers and streams belongs to the public. Paddlers have the right to travel these waterways unimpeded by private landowners. The Court said rivers are not for the exclusive benefit of private landowners. Rivers and their public users have an easement. 


“Paddlers are very pleased that the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that New Mexico’s rivers and streams are for the enjoyment of all. We look forward to removal of threatening signage and the hazardous river barricades that were erected to prevent travel down river,” said Sherry Barrett, Chair of New Mexico Paddlers Coalition. “Our rivers and streams are the lifeblood of New Mexico and will continue to be enjoyed by all New Mexicans and visitors to our state.”


“New Mexico’s rivers and streams are rare and precious resources that all New Mexicans are entitled to enjoy,” said Scott Carpenter, President of the Adobe Whitewater Club.  “This access is part of New Mexico’s heritage. The NM Supreme Court unanimously ruled today that the public has a long-standing constitutional right to recreational uses of these rivers and streams. That right includes contact with the streambed and banks that is incidental to recreational use of the water.  The court ruled it is unconstitutional for private landowners to fence the public out.”   


“The NM Supreme Court ruled today that citizens and visitors from all walks of life have a constitutional right to recreational uses of New Mexico’s public waters, including New Mexico’s best natural fishing streams,” said Robert Levin, New Mexico State Director of the American Canoe Association. “A handful of landowners do not have the exclusive right to the recreational and economic benefits of public streams flowing across private property. They do not have the exclusive right to monetize public rivers.”


“In delivering the court’s decision, the Chief Justice Vigil started by indicating that this issue is in fact of great public interest and he is right. New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economy supports 33,500 jobs and $1.2B of income. Today’s decision ensures that the residents and visitors of New Mexico can access the rivers that provide those recreational opportunities,” said Hattie Johnson, S. Rockies Stewardship Director for American Whitewater. “Paddlers from across the country travel to enjoy New Mexico’s unique and beautiful rivers and we are happy to see that their rights to do so are being upheld.”  


“I’m thankful that the Game Commission rule will no longer be a barrier to our state’s policy of developing a robust river touring component to our outdoor recreation economy.” said Steve Harris, director of the New Mexico River Outfitters Association.


The paddling community recognizes and respects the rights of landowners to preclude trespass on private land bordering the river. We are dedicated to working with landowners to ensure all our natural resources are protected.


To support our mission, we cooperate with individuals, government agencies, and other non-governmental organizations to promote river conservation; provide leadership in outdoor ethics and education; support stewardship initiatives; and promote safety.

For more information on New Mexico Stream Access, visit

American Whitewater

Hattie Johnson

Phone: 970-456-8533
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Public Lands, Forests, and Mining Subcommittee Legislative Hearing Testimony (11/1/2021)

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