Last night, State Land Commissioner hopeful Ray Powell posted this photo on his Facebook page to illustrate a road allegedly being blazed through state trust lands
in the controversial White Peak area near Las Vegas. "Enough is enough!"
Powell wrote. "No more land
give aways." In all this, one thing's clear: White Peak is once again the focal point of widespread anger, frustration and confusion.
Powell says he got the photo from Ed Olona, the president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation
. "There's violations all over the place,"
Olona tells SFR. "They don't have an ecological impact study, and they're crossing a stream. That road is not being made to last; the first rainstorm we have is going to wash it out."
Part of the rationale for building the new road, Olona says, could be to skirt private property near White Peak, where road issues have a long and bitter history
. Last fall, the State Land Office's attempt to swap state trust lands for private parcels elicited a public outcry
from sportsmen and environmentalists.
The justification for the swap, which constituted a net loss in state trust land acreage, was to consolidate public and private holdings in order to alleviate decades of tension between private landowners and sportsmen who crossed area ranches to hunt on state trust land. (Click here
to read SFR's cover story
on White Peak.)
Olona claims the State Land Office, Department of Game and Fish and David Stanley, the owner of a large ranch in White Peak, are cooperating to build a new road around Stanley's land. Leif Ahlm, the northeast area operations chief for Game & Fish, confirmed that "the Department is looking at access in White Peak" but referred SFR to the department's legal counsel, Jim Karp. (SFR left a message.)
Jeremy Vesbach, the Wildlife Federation's director, tells SFR he doesn't know exactly what was going on with the road."All I can say is, we're just shocked,"
Vesbach says. Olona says he learned about it when he got a call from a local resident.Updated 4:30 pm:
SFR just spoke with David Stanley, who says he's footing the bill to improve an old road through state trust land to White Peak. The benefit, he says, is mutual: no more trespass issues among public and private land users, and no more lawsuits."All anybody wants is for state hunters to stay on [public] land
and off the private," Stanley says. "That was the whole intention of the trade: guaranteed good access."
Stanley agrees that the dirt road will have to be maintained, but says it'll still be better than the currently unmaintained access road through his land. (Click here
to watch SFR's ATV tour on the old road.) He also takes issue with one point from Powell's Facebook page
that the road is being built on "land that was traded away by the current land commissioner":(Dennis W. Montoya
is a candidate
for Position 2 on the New Mexico Court of Appeals.)
The road in question, Stanley notes, is only possible because of private land he traded to the State Land Office—for the express purpose of building a public access road
, a point which Assistant Land Commissioner Kristin Haase confirms.
The map below shows state trust land in blue
; the road in question is the purple access road designed to deliver sportsmen all the way to White Peak (top). (The pieces Stanley traded to the Land Office are in slightly darker blue, but it's hard to see.)
Haase—who says she "just learned about this today"
—also disputes Powell's assertion that the road in question is "being blazed on land...that is currently under litigation in the Supreme Court."
As SFR reported
in March, the Supreme Court's last move was to request more information on the White Peak situation; the Court has not yet made a ruling. But since the Stanley deal—the first of four proposed exchanges—had already gone through when the Supreme Court ordered a halt on ongoing trades, Haase says, "It is of our opinion that the land exchange with David Stanley is valid and will remain so."
But to Olona, there's the rub. "Was this project put out for bid by [Game & Fish] and or by the [State Land Office]?" Olona wrote in an email. SFR currently has a call in to NMDOT spokesman Mark Slimp on the permitting and contracting requirements for the access road.
Much of this debate will depend on the Supreme Court. But even the Court's decision, Haase says, "will have no effect on the road." Powell, however, begs to differ.
"It just seems like it's going to create an absolute mess
if the ownership changes again," Powell tells SFR. "What worries me is what's going to happen if this [exchange] gets reversed."
As to whether he thought that likely, Powell says he hopes so—but in the end, "It's all speculation."
Some photos from Olona:
One small update, 5:00 pm: Olona also forwarded an email dated Aug. 11 from Karl Gonzales of the NMDOT, who apparently went to the site and spoke with the road workers about the project.
"I did not request [the contractor] to cease work due to the fact that the access to the property was EXISTING & most of the work was being preformed [sic] outside of the [right-of-way]," Gonzales writes.
But Powell questions the process for hiring that contractor, especially if Stanley is footing the bill.
"If it hasn't gone through an open bid process, what's the guarantee that road will meet state standards?" he wonders. And given what Powell calls the "legal morass" of White Peak—the land could be public or private; several entities of both types are financially involved—"Who's going to assume the liability?"