State parks plans to patrol less of Navajo Lake

Brett Berntsen
Navajo Lake is seen from New Mexico State Highway 539 on Jan. 20, 2015, near the community of Navajo Dam.

FARMINGTON – Representatives from New Mexico State Parks will give a presentation at the San Juan County Commission meeting today, detailing the department’s controversial proposal to patrol less of Navajo Lake State Park.

“They're probably going to get hammered,” the county’s Chief Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said. “They’ve got some explaining to do.”

Local officials fear that reducing the state agency's boundaries at Navajo Lake will transfer the burden of law enforcement to the San Juan County Sheriff's Office. Moreover, Carpenter said the parks department has been looking into the changes for several years, but didn't notify the sheriff's department until January.

The plan will shrink the area park rangers patrol from nearly 20,000 acres to about 4,400 acres, according to Daily Times archives.

Department officials did not return requests for comment for this story, but have said in previous interviews that the changes will allow rangers to focus on the part of the park near Navajo Dam, which contains multiple campgrounds and marinas.

“They're proposing to just work the area where they make money,” San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said. “But they made no prior arrangements for anybody to take over rest of their jurisdiction.”

In March, state parks spokeswoman Beth Wojahn said in an email that the department was developing the proposal with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the water resource agency that the state partnered with to create the park. She said it would have been premature to notify the sheriff’s department until a plan was formulated.

Christesen said the cash-strapped sheriff's department can't pick up the state's slack, and he worries a lack of patrols could lead to an increase in nefarious activities such as illegal dumping and out-of-control parties in remote regions of the park.

“It’s hard enough right now to deal with that,” he said. “They can’t just pass that off to somebody because they don’t have any money.”

Navajo Lake is the second most popular state park in the New Mexico, according to its 5-year management plan published in 2012. The park generates about $630,000 annually in visitor fees, concession contracts and fishing guide permits, the plan states. On average the park spends 22 percent of its budget on operating costs, and 78 percent on staff salaries.

State Parks Director Christy Tafoya will present the boundary change proposal at today's county commission meeting, where she will likely field questions from local officials.

“I hope that they will delay this until they can either fund us, or find a way to fund themselves,” Christesen said.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.