ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A panel charged with overseeing hunting and fishing regulations and managing wildlife across New Mexico met Friday for the first time following a shakeup over an ongoing dispute that involves public access to rivers and streams that flow through private property.
Former Game Commission chairwoman Joanna Prukop ran afoul of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last fall when she and other commissioners voted to reconsider the contested rule that limits access. Questions had been raised about whether commissioners appointed by a previous governor had overstepped their authority years earlier by adopting the rule despite constitutional provisions that refer to the state's waters as public.
The commission under Prukop's leadership had the support of sportsmen groups, conservationists and members of Congress when it voted in November to begin sorting out the quagmire. However, the governor's office later told Prukop she would not be reappointed when her term expired at the end of 2019.
The governor's office at the time cited policy and style differences but declined to offer any specifics.
Sportsmen groups and other critics say politics is at play, suggesting that a handful of wealthy landowners is pushing to keep the rule as it is.
Prukop, who was first appointed to the Game Commission by the governor last May, maintains that the rule is based on a law that runs counter the state constitution and that the commission would have to start over if the problem is going to be solved. She cited a previous court decision as well as a series of attorney general opinions that relate to the public nature of the state's waterways.
There have been numerous meetings on the issue with Game and Fish Department staff, commissioners and others, she said.
“We have strained our brains every which way we can about how to possibly make this situation win-win when you have an unconstitutional rule,” she told The Associated Press. “The Game Commission is in no position to be in the middle of a fight between what water in our state actually is and what the impacts of that are on private property rights."
She and others have predicted that the issue will eventually have to be settled by the courts.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham believes a balance can be found to ensure access for anglers and outdoor enthusiasts while also protecting private property rights.
“With the rule now open and before the commission, there is an opportunity to engage stakeholders on all sides of the issue about the best way to implement the law the Legislature passed five years ago,” he said in a statement.
Hunting, angling and wildlife advocates have said Prukop was one of the most qualified commissioners to lead the panel in years. They pointed to her time as the state's energy and natural resources secretary under former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, after working for the state Game and Fish Department for more than 25 years. She also served in former President Barack Obama’s administration as a three-term appointee to the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council.
Sharon Salazar Hickey was tapped by the governor to replace Prukop.
Hickey, a program manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was elected chair of the commission during Friday's meeting in Las Cruces. She said she was honored and talked abouther eight years on the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps Commission and having learned much about New Mexico's resources and communities during that time.
Given the shakeup, it's unclear how soon the commission could began moving again on the stream access issue.