Both sides in the legal battle over several contested roads in a swathe of remote Northern New Mexico forest presented closing arguments in a high-profile case in a district courtroom in Taos Thursday (April 26).
The trial, which went before 8th Judicial District Court Judge Sarah Backus for two weeks in March, centered on a handful of old roads that cross private property but lead to state-owned land around White Peak, also known as White's Peak. The state land, popular with hunters, lies between Colfax and Mora counties in northeastern New Mexico.
David Stanley, a private landowner with about 15,000 acres in the area, filed the case seven years ago against the Colfax and Mora County commissioners, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the state Department of Transportation.
He's seeking to once and for all settle his ownership over several roads in the area.
Both state trust land and Stanley holdings are checkered across a landscape that has seen the hunters-versus-landowner struggle over access occasionally flare up over the past several decades.
The state, represented by the New Mexico Attorney General's Office, argued that State Road 199 is a public road, and its history as such is "well established" in the historical record.
"It's safe to say this is the most important public roads case in New Mexico in the last several decades," said state attorney Ari Biernoff. He said the state's courts have few case precedents dealing with a law pertaining to private roads that can become public under specific criteria. That particular law has been pivotal in similar cases in other Western states.
Meanwhile, Stanley's attorney Donald Walcott argued that even after examining the historical record and on-the-ground facts, there's no "definite location of any roads claimed [by the state]," meaning the roads can't be claimed as the state is attempting to do.
Just how the roads were used and understood to be either public or not is vital to both factions in the White Peak case. Walcott suggested that hunters who used the contested roads did so seasonally and with Stanley's permission.
The state argued their use was more sustained and permission was never sought or granted. "People have never asked for permission, needed permission or been approached about permission," Biernoff said.
Attorneys for both the plaintiff and defendant must submit their findings of fact and conclusions of law by late May. A ruling is not expected until at least June.
The final ruling could have major impacts on access, not only around White Peak, but throughout the state.
"If [Stanley] can block access, then the state trust land is essentially his," Biernoff said.
But Walcott argued that if the court sides with the state, thus declaring the road public rather than private, "the hunters lose."
"Public roads are the precursor to development," Walcott told The Taos News in a follow-up email.
"Prior to the filing of this suit, Mr. Stanley and his family had engaged in 30 years of continual attempts to find a win-win for all concerned…while granting access to properly licensed hunters and doing everything in their power to preserve the wilderness quality of the land."
Indeed, past efforts to resolve disputes with the Stanley Ranch have been unsuccessful. In a land exchange facilitated by former Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons -- who is again running for the same office -- Stanley traded 3,330 acres of his ranch for 7,205 acres of state trust land.
Both tracks were appraised at about $6.3 million. Still, then-Attorney General Gary King challenged the deals, and the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2011 determined the trades were illegal.
"Mr. Stanley's passion and willingness to continue this effort amongst adversity has come to an end," Walcott said. "Win or lose, if controversy and negativity remain, the land will be sold."