SOCORRO, N.M. (KRQE) – Wealthy land owners have made a big push to keep the public away from their property. But they’re also keeping them away from a beautiful spot that’s been open to the public for more than 100 years and the government let them have their way.
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For more than 100 years, people have been able to drive through the the Monticello Canyon. It’s an 17-mile stretch of dirt road that runs along side and through the Alamosa Creek. The road is an easy four-wheel drive through a beautiful canyon called the Monticello Box. The canyon’s eastern entrance is about 90 miles southwest of Socorro. Half of the road is in Socorro County. The other half is in Sierra County.
“It truly is at the county border in the middle of the wildnerness,” said Delilah Walsh, the Socorro County Manager.
Recently a Texas oil man bought land near the Monticello Canyon. He banded together with other surrounding land owners and petitioned both counties and last August those counties locked up the road.
“The man has a Texas rancher mentality – lock the gate, keep the hell off my land,” said Tom Stroup, the President of Friends of the Box, a group fighting to keep the road open to the public.
The land owners say people have been leaving the public road and trespassing on their property. They recorded video, they say, shows people stealing wood from their private property, barbecuing off the main road and climbing rocks on private land.
“They were concerned about use on their private property and people trespassing, the littering and the amount of traffic and the inability of the sheriff’s office to respond (because of it’s remote location),” said Walsh.
Four-wheel drive enthusiasts say a majority of people stay on public land.
“It’s crap. There are no off-roading,” Stroup said.
The land owners also say people leave trash behind. The off-roaders dispute that too.
“A friend of mine came through this box on Memorial Day last year. We video taped the whole 17-mile stretch. We found one beer can,” said Dan Helton, Treasurer of Friends of the Box.
The group believes the public road should be just that, public.
“It’s been used by the public, notoriously every day since 1847.” Stroup said.
Stroup says at the mouth of the canyon in Socorro County is where Geronimo was captured. The Anasazi Indians also settled nearby.
“Back to 600 A.D. The Native American history is just incredible here,” Stroup said.
Statutes require the counties follow strict rules to close a public road. The counties had to form a Freeholders Committee to study the possible road closure. Sierra’s commission recommended to keep the road open. Socorro wanted it closed. But both county commissions decided the public road should be under lock and key.
“It was a very long process, this was not a quickie process,” said Walsh. “We’re very careful about giving up public rights to public land.”
Visitors can get access to the canyon and the road if they buy a $25 land permit from the New Mexico State Land Office. The road will also be open during the hunting season.
Friends of the Box filed a lawsuit to try to force the counties to reopen the road. Because Sierra County did not strictly follow the statute, a judge ordered their portion of the road open. A judge plans to make a final ruling on the Socorro County side very soon, but he’s previously said the county followed all the rules.
The Socorro County Manager told KRQE News 13 that the road is difficult to maintain and is prone to flooding.
But in May last year the Socorro County Road Department Director told the Freeholders Committee his office could maintain the Alamosa Canyon to a “reasonable extent.”
Aubrey Dunn, the Commission of Public Lands also wrote a letter in August to the Monticello Community Ditch Association saying part of the land that is chained off is “blocking access to State Trust Land” and “cannot allow this hindrance of access to our land.”
KRQE News 13 asked the Socorro County Manager if Texas money influenced closing this road.
“Absolutely not,” Walsh said.
The Friends of the Box said this fight will continue. They will appeal the judge’s decision.
“This isn’t over with,”Stroup said. “We need help. We need finances, but we’re not done.”