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Congress intended national forests to be reserved for only two purposes -- to conserve the water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the people. National forests were not to be reserved for aesthetic, environmental, recreational, or wildlife-preservation purposes.
The State of New Mexico brought a proceeding in the District Court of Luna County, New Mexico, seeking a general adjudication of water rights in the Rio Mimbres River, a river originating in the upper reaches of the Gila National Forest, flowing generally southward more than 50 miles past privately owned land, and providing substantial water for both irrigation and mining. The United States, as a defendant in the action, claimed reserved water rights in the Rio Mimbres for use in the Gila National Forest. The New Mexico District Court held that the United States, in setting the Gila National Forest aside from other public lands, reserved the use of such water as might be necessary for the purposes for which the land was withdrawn, but that such purposes did not include recreation, aesthetics, wildlife-preservation, or cattle grazing. On appeal by the United States, the Supreme Court of New Mexico affirmed, rejecting the contention of the United States that it was entitled to a minimum instream flow for aesthetic, environmental, recreational and fish purposes, as well as the federal government's argument that it was entitled to a reserved right for stock watering purposes. Certiorari was granted.
By reserving water rights in the Rio Mimbres River, was the United States entitled to a minimum instream flow for aesthetic, environmental, recreational and fish purposes?
The Court held that an examination of the limited purposes for which Congress authorized the creation of national forests disproved the government's claim to water for recreation and wildlife purposes; Congress created the national forest system for the preservation of water flows and the furnishing of timber. 16 U.S.C.S. § 475. The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960, 16 U.S.C.S. § 528 et seq., although broadening the purposes for which national forests had previously been administered, did not expand the reserved rights of the United States. The Court held that the reserved rights doctrine was built on implication and was an exception to Congress' explicit deference to state water law in other areas; hence, Congress did not intend in enacting the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act to reserve water for the secondary purposes there established. Thus, the United States, as a result of its setting aside the Gila National Forest, was entitled to reserved water rights in the Rio Mimbres River to the extent necessary to preserve timber and a favorable water flow in the Forest, such purposes being those for which national forests were established, but that the United States did not have reserved water rights for purposes of recreation, aesthetics, wildlife-preservation, or cattle grazing.