The COVID-19 pandemic has upended normal activities for businesses, residents and those seeking outdoor recreational opportunities at Elephant Butte Lake.
While the state Department of Health issued the Public Health Order (PHO) setting limited hours and days for the public to use the lake, State Park officials are tasked with enforcing these on Park property.
The Park has been closed, or under limited operational hours all season in an effort to contain the virus, which is hurting local businesses, and is in fact responsible for at least two closing their doors for good.
Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham extended the PHO on July 31, setting hours from 6 a.m. till 6 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. Passengers of vehicles entering the Park have to show proof they are from the local area (a valid New Mexico license plate, a New Mexico driver’s license or ID card, a New Mexico vehicle registration, a federal document attesting to residency, or a military ID) to be admitted to the Park. Persons must also wear masks unless they have a doctor’s excuse or are eating/drinking.
DEALING WITH THE PUBLIC
This newspaper has received numerous complaints from local residents about the operating hours at the Park, and how Rangers are interacting with the public in enforcing those new rules.
This week two local residents spoke with the Sentinel on the condition their names be kept off the record. One longtime resident spoke about how he and his family have been spending summer afternoons at the Park for 40 years.
When the lake was open till 8 p.m., he said he went to the lake and had a Ranger approach his family every 30 minutes to remind them they had to leave by 8 p.m.
Finally, he said he told the Ranger he was an adult, a local resident, and had been coming here 40 years, and didn’t need to be reminded because he knew how to follow the rules.
“Well, it’s our job to make sure you’re COVID safe and wearing a mask, and if you aren’t off the lake by 8 p.m. we’re going to cite you,” the resident said the Ranger told him.
“Now that it is closing at 6 p.m., we can’t even go out there and enjoy the lake because I don’t get off until 5 p.m. And by the time we get through the gate and check, then set up, it’s time to leave,” said the resident.
Sheriff Glenn Hamilton said his office has also received complaints about some Rangers; including one about a Ranger placing his hand on his holster while approaching a man walking a dog on the beach.
He also said he received a complaint from a man who received a trespassing citation (no warning or attempt to educate the man about the PHO, according to the man) after he went for a walk on the trail along Rock Canyon Road that hikers often use.
“This gentleman often walks the trail there for exercise, and he said he pulled his vehicle over and parked, and walked about 100 yards before seeing the sign saying the area was closed,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton said the man then turned to walk back to his vehicle when he was confronted by a Ranger who immediately issued the citation.
Hamilton said his office has offered, repeatedly, manpower to enforce the mask and limitation on opening hours, as well as handle any criminal activity that may take place on the Park property, which would allow Park Rangers to concentrate on checking identification at the entrances. However, he said the State Parks has not responded to his offer.
The Sentinel spent two days trying to contact officials with the State Parks, trying to get some questions answered about the operation of the Park.
A call to State Park main number resulted in recordings. After trying to contact several Park officials – only to receive recordings stating the mailboxes of these officials were full and couldn’t receive messages – the reporter was able to secure the mobile phone number of a regional official who would not talk, but referred the caller back to the Santa Fe office.
In the meantime, a check of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources offices did produce contact information about a communication director. She did answer the emails.
The Sentinel stated in the email to her: “People around Elephant Butte Lake have been contacting our office complaining about the hours, and several have stated the rangers were unfriendly and threatening. They need to do a better job of working with the public they supposedly serve, starting with being available via phone, email, etc.”
The statement Public Information Officer | Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Department Susan Torres offered is:
“State Park Rangers are committed to keeping the public informed, safe and healthy. State Parks will continue to do our best to keep the public informed about current restrictions and guidance and answer questions.”
Following is State Park’s answer to the questions posed by the Sentinel, with the Park’s response:
Q: Who is making decisions about the days/hours Elephant Butte and Caballo lakes are open during the pandemic? Are local officials involved?
A: State Parks is working with local park staff, local officials and the community and taking guidance from health experts on how to manage hours of operations during the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic we have been in contact with local officials who have provided helpful feedback on how to balance public safety with access.
Q: Is there a shortage of staff at these parks?
A: Yes, State Parks is currently looking to fill positions at both Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Lake.
Q: Is there a hiring freeze at these parks?
A: No, see above.
Q: What extension of hours are to be implemented for anglers on Aug. 6?
A: Beginning August 6, Elephant Butte Lake will extend hours of use to 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. due to requests from local anglers in the community.
Q: Can you explain the reasoning behind the current hours at Elephant Butte and Caballo lakes, considering the local people who work and get off at 5 p.m. can only enjoy the parks till 6 p.m., and we have reports of park rangers at 5:30 p.m. telling people to prepare to leave?
A: Current day-use hours at the parks are a result of staff currently available and the additional time needed to ensure the parks are cleaned to the recommendations provided by the CDC.
Q: Who would someone call if they needed a Ranger for an emergency on these lakes?
A: If there is an emergency, dial 911. For all other questions, call 575-744-5923.
Q: What steps are being taken to address a staff shortage at these parks. (if there is one)?
A: There are currently multiple open positions we are looking to hire; we encourage members of the local community to search for open positions on the State Personnel Office website.