Colorado lawmakers trying to protect river rafters
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – Wearing life vests and carrying paddles, commercial Colorado river rafters vowed Monday to fight for their right to navigate the state’s whitewater rivers after a Texas development company threatened to shut them down.
At a rally at the state Capitol, Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures, said his company guides about 23,000 tourists a year down five Colorado rivers. He is worried that a threat by Lewis Shaw II, president of Jackson-Shaw developers of Dallas, to file a civil suit would shut down a $142 million industry.
Bradford said Colorado law reserves the use of Colorado rivers for the people, not for landowners. The state attorney general has ruled commercial rafters cannot be prosecuted for trespassing, but that didn’t settle the civil dispute.
“He says we’re compromising his property rights. He’s coming to Colorado from another state and disputing our historical use of the river, threatening to shut us down,” Bradford said.
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In December, the company sent commercial rafters a letter saying “there is no credible interpretation of legal statute, case or authorization permitting rafting, floating or any transit through or over private property.” Shaw threatened legal action if rafters or their customers touch the riverbanks or river bottom while on their property.
The property has been developed as a fishing resort on the banks of the Taylor River near Gunnison and the company contends rafters interfere with fishing.
Shaw said he gave rafters permission to use his property last year based on guarantees they would not interfere with fishermen. He said he was disappointed when hundreds of them took advantage of his offer, disrupting the fishermen, and he notified them he would not renew his offer this year.
“I have this property and it’s like people are boating on your front lawn,” he said.
The bill would give commercial rafters the right to navigate rivers in Colorado and limited rights to use the river banks to avoid obstacles. The House Judiciary Committee approved it on a 7-3 vote after seven hours of testimony Monday and sent it to the full House for debate.
Mark Schumacher, owner of Three Rivers Resort, said developers have already shut down rafting on the Lake Fork River after they persuaded the federal Bureau of Land Management not to reissue a permit. Permits are also issued by the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Parks.
Rep. Kathleen Curry, an unaffiliated lawmaker from Gunnison, said North Dakota and Colorado are the only two states west of the Mississippi River that don’t have strict protection for commercial rafters. She said Utah clarified its rules four years ago, making it clear rafters have access.
Curry acknowledged that rafters can interfere with fishermen and she said both sides need to respect each other’s rights. She said this issue has rippled throughout the West for decades, but states and the federal government have learned how to deal with it.
“I’d say rafting and fishing can coexist. That’s been out there for years, even though they might not be the best of friends,” she said.
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