Every fall, Greg Sarlo bowhunts elk in White Peak, a lush, mountainous region in northeast New Mexico. But this year, for the first time, Sarlo and his friends are barred from the road they've always taken to get there.
Sarlo, an Albuquerque resident, is part of a group of more than two dozen hunters that travels up to White Peak every year for elk season. At least a few of them will keep camp at White Peak for the entire bowhunting season, which begins Sept. 1 and ends Sept. 24.
Much of the effort to hunt in White Peak involves getting there: The region is a 40,000-acre hodgepodge of public and private land accessed by rocky, unkempt roads, some of which pass through private land. Sarlo says this year, for the first time, his hunting group can't access White Peak via Red Hill road, which passes through land owned by private rancher David Stanley. The hunters' only other option from the south is a longer route that Stanley negotiated with the state's Department of Game and Fish earlier this year. But Sarlo says that route is more grueling.
"You would not believe this ride," Sarlo tells SFR. "After about three days on wheelers, we're going to be beat up."
The dispute adds to an ongoing controversy in the White Peak region that's pitted hunters against landowners for years. In April, state Land Commissioner Ray Powell struck the final blow to a land swap deal that would have given Stanley 7,205 acres of state trust land for 3,330 acres of his private ranch.
In a 3-2 decision, the state Supreme Court found the deal, made in 2009 by then Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, didn't follow proper state auctioning rules.
"Anytime you dispose of state trust land, you're supposed to have an open bid," Harry Relkin, general counsel at the State Land Office, tells SFR. "In this situation, only one bidder could have it, and that was Mr. Stanley."
The land swap deal irked hunters and sportsmen-advocate nonprofits so much that nearly every 2010 land commissioner candidate ran against it.
But Lyons argued it was a boon for the state because it would have replaced much of the checkerboard layout of public and private land with more consistent borders.
Stanley also disputes hunters' claims that the state would have given up prime elk hunting land and received nothing in return.
"There's a reason why: There's a difference in quality of land," Stanley tells SFR.
At the time of the deal, an outside appraiser hired by four area ranchers valued Stanley's proposed land at $6.41 million, just over the $6.36 million value priced of the greater amount of state land he'd receive in return. Much state land is degraded, Stanley says, and New Mexico would have been able to manage and make money off the prime land he was offering.
But many hunters weren't buying it, believing he and Lyons, also a private ranch owner, were buddying up on the deal.
Stanley says he never met Lyons until he was commissioner. Lyons served as a state senator for a decade before assuming the role; he's since been elected to the Public Regulation Commission. According to Stanley, Lyons approached him in an effort to remedy the ongoing White Peak issues.
"All this stuff about cronies isn't true," Stanley tells SFR.
The problem, Stanley contends, is trespassing. He says hunters have repeatedly intruded and even poached game on his land.
"All a hunter has to do is take one sign away and notifications of trespass are gone," he says. "We'll put out over 100 signs [on Red Hill] before hunting season, and by the end, 75 percent are gone."
Stanley maintains that the portion of Red Hill road that passes through his land is his, despite the fact that "everybody and their dog claims" it. A few years ago, he says, Mora County, "to prove a point," took down without warning a gate he had erected on the road.
Ed Olona, the past president of New Mexico Wildlife Federation, says he's trying to get the county to take down a new gate Stanley has put up since. He adds that, because Red Hill road was once a US Postal Service route, it remains in the public domain.
But Don Day, the Colfax County manager, says he has a "funny feeling" that's not the case.
"Just because it was a mail route at one point doesn't mean it is still one today," Day tells SFR.
He adds that Colfax County has never claimed or maintained the road.
Now Stanley is attempting to claim his portion of the road once and for all. On Aug. 11, he filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico State Land Office, Department of Game and Fish, Department of Transportation and Mora and Colfax counties seeking quiet title to land that Red Hill road passes through. Stanley says he filed the lawsuit after receiving a letter from the district attorney to open the gate. The suit again raises the question of whether roads such as Red Hill are public or private.
In April, the Land Office removed boulders blocking a portion of state Route 199, which accesses White Peak from the northwest. But Powell says the portion that was blocked off runs through state land, which gave his office the authority to open it up. Since Red Hill road runs through Stanley's land, its fate is more complicated.
"Everybody's trying to get a final determination on whether it's private or not," Powell tells SFR. "That's what's finally going to be resolved by legal actions."
For now, Powell says he's balancing opening access to White Peak to responsible hunters with respecting private landowners. He's also fielding lack of access complaints like Sarlo's.
Meanwhile, Sarlo's hunting group, which he says has had a good relationship with Stanley in the past, is planning for a more inconvenient trip via the alternate route. He disputes the notion that sportsmen would hunt on Stanley's land off of Red Hill road.
"His stuff is on the other side of the mountain," Sarlo says. "It's nice land, but we have no reason to be over there."