Rafters group seeks clear running on Colorado rivers
The state’s river-rafting outfitters are paddling toward putting a “right to float” question before state voters.”Our position is that the river is public domain,” said Kevin Schneider, the president of the Colorado River Outfitters Association and the owner of Rock Gardens Rafting in Glenwood Springs.Schneider said a statewide ballot question to clarify what rights boaters have on Colorado’s rivers is probably two years away.”We are in the earlier stages of developing a strategy,” he said after a CROA meeting earlier this week. “We are working on putting together a coalition, getting an executive director lined up, and will probably start doing some polling.”The issue of whether commercial and private boaters have a clear right to float down a river – without touching either the riverbank or the river bottom – was raised last year when a rancher sued a rafting company for floating past his land.Yosef Lutwak, who owns property along the Lake Creek arm of the Gunnison River, charged the owner of Cannibal Outdoors with civil trespass for leading raft trips past private land.The lawsuit is now in limbo as Cannibal has gone out of business, in part from the hassles and expense of the lawsuit, and no clarity was brought to a murky area of Colorado law.The law is not clear whether commercial and private boaters have an absolute right to float down a river without either touching the river bottom or the riverbank.It is clear that the land on the bottom of the river and on the sides in some areas is private and off-limits. That is not the case in all states. In Montana, the streambed and the banks up to the high-water line are public, which both fishermen and boaters appreciate.The Colorado Department of Natural Resources has been trying to bring landowners and boaters together over the issue of river access and rights. Three years ago the department formed the River Surface Recreation Forum to try to avoid litigation, legislation or ballot questions on the issue.”The goal was to come up with administrative solutions to right-to-float issues,” said Ron Cattany, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The law is unclear enough, it will create winners and losers.”The Surface Recreation group has worked to get federal funding for a new river ranger position on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, is installing signs to let boaters know if land is public or private, has created and distributed a brochure on river etiquette, and is willing to serve as a negotiator on any conflicts that spring up between boaters and landowners.But despite Cattany’s and the River Surface Recreation Forum’s efforts to negotiate disputes about floating, there has been one lawsuit, a pending ballot question and one legislative attempt to change current law.Last month, a private landowners group called the Creekside Coalition tried to amend an natural resource bill moving through the state legislature with a provision that would make it a crime to fish or hunt while floating past private land.Both CROA and the Colorado chapter of Trout Unlimited worked successfully to get the amendment removed from the bill.As the summer rafting season starts, there is nothing visible just downstream that will change the status quo for either boaters or landowners.”The rivers are open and runnable, and I don’t think anyone is going to push this issue further on Lake Creek,” said Bob Harris of Blazing Adventures in Snowmass Village and a member of CROA.But the broader issue is not likely to go away for either commercial or private boaters, especially with the growing number of kayakers seeking to get to more sections of rivers and with the increase in the number of private rafters heading out on their own for river trips.”It’s going to take a realistic approach for people to understand the concerns of landowners,” said Harris. “And I would suggest that private boaters get actively involved with groups like American Whitewater, which are going to protect their concerns but will also expect them to understand proper river etiquette.”
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