County meeting sees big debate about road; Land Council decides on Felix Canyon Road; final say will be May 18
Mike Casabonne, standing, and son Kellen face a great deal of opposition in their request to close a portion of Felix Canyon Road that runs through their land southwest of Roswell. A sizable group of about 40 listen to the debate Thursday night at the Chaves County Land Council meeting. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)
Although more than 300 signatures against the closure of Felix Canyon Road in Chaves County have been collected, the Chaves County Land Council voted Thursday night to recommend that the land owners’ request for closure be accepted.
Four of the five council members present voted to recommend the request. Jim Byrd cast the lone vote of dissent. He previously had offered a motion to deny the request for closure, but that motion was not seconded and did not move forward.
The Land Council, with its appointed citizen members, functions as an advisory board to the elected governing body of the Chaves County Board of Commission. The commissioners are scheduled to make the final decision about the road request at their May 18 meeting.
The debate over a 5.35 mile stretch of land off of Highway 13 southwest of Roswell has waged both in public meetings, a site visit and online. It has pitted the rights of private land owners against the interests of hunters, recreationalists and public land representatives who oppose what they say are increasing trends of road closures and obstacles to accessing public lands.
Nine people, including a New Mexico Game and Fish officer and a Bureau of Land Management manager, argued against the closure Thursday, citing statutes, the Chaves County Comprehensive Plan, their agency policies and other rationale for saying that closure of what they termed a primary route to state and federal public lands would benefit only the Casabonne family at the expense of the greater good.
For their part, Mike Casabonne and his son Kellen told how times has changed since the father purchased the grazing land for his ranching business in 1978.
The county road that goes through their private property, what many know of as the Lloyd Treat Ranch, existed when he bought the land, Mike Casabonne conceded, but he said that circumstances have changed. Increased hunter traffic from September through February over the years has meant an increase in trespassing as well as cut fences and other minor damage, he explained.
“In summary, the reason for our request is to ensure the security of our property,” Mike Casabonne said. “The reason there have not been more citations and actions is that we prevent (trespasses) for the most part.”
In addition to asserting their constitutional right to not be deprived private property rights, the Casabonnes’ major points included that closing the road would not deny access to public lands, but would only require people seeking to access them from the east to detour about 30 miles; that arrangements would made to ensure that law enforcement and emergency services personnel continue to have access to the road; and that the time and effort to police their property to keep trespassers or “unethical” hunters off their property is burdensome.
Their supporters included rancher and former County Commissioner Kim Chesser and Jens Klingshirn, a neighbor to the west.
Business owner and rancher Toby Marrujo was among those expressing upset after the vote.
“It is illegal to close that road,” he said, referring to a statute read at the meeting that indicated that county roads “shall not” be closed if they provide primary access to public lands or recreational areas.
When he addressed the council, Marrujo said that he owns a ranch and that he voluntarily allows people to hunt on it because he is well aware of how much harder it is becoming for people to access public lands.
Edward Onsurez, a hunter who has lived in the area since 1988, said he had collected 300 signatures from people to oppose closure. Copies of the petition were provided to Land Council members and, he said, given to Chaves County Commissioners after their April 20 meeting.
“I didn’t feel like we were getting any representation,” he said about his decision to gather signatures at shopping centers and other public areas.
A change.org online petition also was created by hunting guide David Archibeque, who said 106 people have signed to indicate that they don’t want the road closed.
He said that closing the road will inconvenience many, including his clients, who likely will find somewhere besides Roswell to stay prior to the hunting trips if east access to the public lands is made more difficult.
Chuck Schmidt, field manager of the Roswell office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and Sgt. Ben Byrd of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department also spoke in opposition to closure.
Schmidt said that land management policy generally rules against closing roads unless doing so benefits public health and safety. Byrd asked, “Where in the Chaves County (Comprehensive Plan) does it say the private owner has more weight than the public?”
Land Council member Jim Byrd frequently asked those who spoke whether they had problems where they lived with people who used the nearby roads trespassing, littering or causing damage. When they responded yes, he asked, have you asked for the road to be closed? All those asked responded that they had not. Before making his motion, he named several other county roads that have been closed previously that were near public lands or recreational areas.
Council member Mike Marley, who spoke against Byrd’s unsuccessful motion to recommend denial of the closure application, often asked speakers about their thoughts about the rights of land owners to protect their property, a right all acknowledged is important.
“I do think Mr. Casabonne has a valid right to some protection,” Marley said. “I do not think there are enough Game and Fish people available to alleviate these conflicts.”
Some commissioners slated to vote May 18 attending the meeting, including T. Calder Ezzell and Jeff Bilberry.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.