Requested road closure raises controversy; County commissioners will pay a visit to site before making decision
New Mexico Game and Fish Officer Tyson Sanders uses a map to explain how the closure of a portion of Felix Canyon Road would affect access to nearby public lands during the Thursday annual road hearing, held as part of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners meeting. From left are commissioners James Duffey, T. Calder Ezzell Jr., Will Cavin and Chairman Robert Corn. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)
An annual public road hearing turned into quite a debate Thursday morning.
Private property owners and their advocates asked for the closure of a county road to guard against vandalism, trespassing and poaching, while representatives of public agencies said doing so would make it harder for them and first responders to do their jobs by requiring them to use other roads to access nearby public lands. They also said it would punish the larger community for the misdeeds of a few.
The public roads hearing was held as part of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners regular monthly meeting. County-appointed freeholders had considered two applications for road changes before the hearing. Commissioners heard comments on applications but did not vote. First they will conduct site visits that the public can also attend.
The first application, a request that the county take over maintenance of a small stretch of Wrangler Road near the Roswell-Chaves Solar Centers, did not prompt public comment for or against.
But the second application about a request for a road closure southwest of Roswell brought a sizable audience to the meeting and heavy hitters on both sides.
The issue also has sparked conversations on social media, including a petition on change.org by recreationalists and [auth] hunters who want the road to stay open.
Property owner Mike Casabonne and his family have asked the county to turn over ownership of about 5.35 miles of Felix Canyon Road that runs through their privately owned grazing land. That section of the road starts about 10 miles from the intersection of U.S. 82 and New Mexico Highway 13.
Casabonne and his son told commissioners that since first leasing and then purchasing the property decades ago, the number of hunters and travelers using the county road to get to nearby federal and state lands has increased significantly. And so have the trespassing and poaching problems, they contended.
“We don’t have any issue with ethical hunters who respect private land ownership,” Mike Casabonne said. “We didn’t want to have a fight with the hunting community. … In a steady stream of traffic users, we have no way of knowing which one will poach or trespass.”
The Casabonnes said they would work out agreements with law enforcement officials and emergency personnel so that they would still have access to the road. But, they said, they had come to the conclusion that the only permanent solution to the problems they have encountered is to close that portion of the road to the general public.
They argued that the closure would only affect travelers trying to access public lands from the east via New Mexico Highway 13. Those people would have to use other roads, adding about 40 miles one way to their trip. The benefits, they said, would include decreased costs to the county for road maintenance and improved relations between hunters and property owners as the problems caused by illegal acts are reduced.
Three other people also spoke in favor of the closure, including Kyle “Smiley” Wooton, a freeholder and a former county commissioner. He and another of the freeholders recommended the closure request after their visit to the property. A third freeholder stated that closure could be considered a reasonable decision.
Elizabeth Stephenson, a photographer, also spoke at the meeting in favor of the land owners’ request.
“I think there are some basic principles we need to consider,” she said. “One is that deeded land means something. And that poaching and trespassing are illegal.”
Four people spoke against the closure, including a Carlsbad outfitter and representatives with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the Pecos District of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Steve Brugman of Carlsbad said that he leads hunting trips and now uses Roswell as the starting point for the tours. He estimated that the Roswell airport, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast and supply stores receive $10,000 to $15,000 a year from clients and his business.
If the eastern entry to public lands is blocked by the road closure, he said, it would mean that his clients would probably fly into El Paso and that they would stay in other cities to access the land through a different route.
“I have nothing but respect for ranchers,” he said, “but I don’t think it is right to lock out the many because of the misdeeds of a few.”
Game and Fish officer Tyson Sanders said that the department had documented two cases of trespass and had taken legal action in both cases.
He and Capt. Andrew Gray, who presented his thoughts in a letter, opposed the closure on the grounds that it would unnecessarily require a longer route to reach Bureau of Land Management property on both sides of the road and would cause significant delays to emergency services personnel to the area. They said it could add an hour and 10 minutes to reach the public lands if the road is closed. Sanders added that verbal agreements with Casabonne about access cannot guarantee future decisions and actions.
BLM District Manager Jim Stovall said that the bureau has a vested interest in ensuring ease of access to public lands and explained that his office would be wiling to try to negotiate another option besides closure.
U.S. Department of Interior officer Quinton Franzoy said the road should remain open to provide easier access for law enforcement and emergency personnel needing access to the public land.
The Monday site visits to the two country roads under consideration will start with the Wrangler Road north of Roswell before continuing to Felix Canyon Road. Commissioners expect to leave the Chaves County Administrative Center at about 8 a.m. and to be at Felix Canyon Road at about 9:45 a.m. People wanting to go to the site visits must use their own transportation.
Commissioners could act on the road applications after those visits, but it is expected that they will decide to vote at the May 18 Board of Commissioners meeting, according to county documents.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.