County fears additional burden at Navajo Lake

Steve Garrison
Park Superintendent Gary Skiba looks across the water Friday near the Pinon Loop Campground at Navajo Lake State Park at Navajo Dam. New Mexico officials are considering reducing the amount of territory around the lake that the state is responsible for.

FARMINGTON – Local officials fear the San Juan County Sheriff's Office will be forced to patrol an additional 15,000 acres of land by year's end due to a proposal by New Mexico State Parks to reduce the agency's boundaries at Navajo Lake.

The proposal could have a significant impact on the county's budget, according to San Juan County Executive Kim Carpenter. The San Juan County Commission is expected to pass a resolution at its next meeting condemning the proposal.

"This is another way the state is trying to find ways to force unfunded mandates on local government," Carpenter said.

New Mexico State Parks Deputy Director Toby Velasquez said Thursday his agency signed an agreement in 1963 with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that established the boundaries of Navajo Lake State Park. That agreement was most recently extended in 1997.

Currently, four park officers enforce state laws throughout that territory, which includes 19,448 acres of shoreline and 12,936 surface acres of navigable waters, according to Velasquez.

But the deputy director said his agency is in discussion with the bureau to substantially reduce that footprint. Under the agency's new proposal, park officers would continue to patrol navigable waters on Navajo Lake, but the agency would reduce the land area it patrols to the 4,395 acres near Navajo Dam.

"We want to focus our resources on state parks," Velasquez said. "We are not a large agency. We don't have a lot of people out there. So we want their energy to be focused on the areas with the most need, where people are boating, camping and fishing."

Superintendent Gary Skiba drives around Navajo Lake State Park at Navajo Dam on Friday.

San Juan County Undersheriff Shane Ferrari said Friday that proposed reduction would leave the San Juan County Sheriff's Office responsible for enforcing laws on the abandoned land.

"Here we are again," Ferrari said. "The state is pushing more on us — they are taking our funding — but they are pushing more on us and giving up their ownership in this area because it's not profitable."

Ferrari said once the state shrinks its boundaries, the land would again revert to federal ownership, but "are the feds going to come down here and clean up the shorelines?"

State parks spokeswoman Beth Wojahn said in an email Friday that 217 warnings or citations were issued in 2014 at Navajo Lake State Park, but the majority of those, 176, were issued in the territory that would remain state owned under the new proposal.

State parks issued 81 citations or warnings in 2015, but 71 of those citations or warnings were issued in territory that would remain under state control, according to Wojahn.

"Based on state parks data, park officers will still be responding to and managing the majority of the incidents on land and water in and adjacent to Navajo Lake State Park," Wojahn said.

Wojahn said state parks would not reduce the number of park officers assigned to Navajo Lake.

Ferrari said his agency currently has only one boat and one deputy assigned to Navajo Lake. He said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may be able to provide funding to ease the transition, but it would be temporary.

Ferrari said state parks officials told him they have planned for four years to tighten state boundary lines at the lake, but local law enforcement was only notified of the plans in late January.

Wojahn said the parks division has been working with the bureau over that period to consolidate multiple lease agreements in the state.

"We always work with the entity that we have the legal agreement with — in this case BOR — to make sure we are on the same page before we develop draft plans to share with other agencies and the public," Wojahn said. "It would have been premature for the State Parks Division to provide information to agency partners prior to this point."

Park Superintendent Gary Skiba walks along the Navajo Lake Marina at Navajo Lake State Park at Navajo Dam on Friday.

Wojahn said the state parks division has previously negotiated new agreements with the bureau for Elephant Butte Lake State Park and Caballo Lake State Park.

Carpenter said the County Commission is expected to pass a resolution condemning the state agency's proposal.

"We are absolutely not happy about it," Carpenter said. "Our commission and San Juan County are extremely frustrated because this conversation has been going on for four years, and this is the first we are hearing about it."

Carpenter said he needed more information to determine what impact the state's proposal would have on county finances.

Velasquez said a public hearing will be held before state parks makes a decision about the boundary change.

"This is a proposal that is still a work in progress, and we are certainly going to work with our partners to ensure that we have a good position moving forward and no one feels that they are carrying an extra burden," he said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.