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The threat of commercial rafters

Dear Editor:

Picture Brad Pitt, angling in solitude along a roaring river with the glorious West all around him in the film “A River Runs Through It.” Out of nowhere, a flotilla of rubber rafts rounds the bend carrying screaming tourists. Their paddles chop awkwardly at the water; the guides shout instructions. One tourist falls out; another hops onto a riverbank to snap a photo.

Not all of that was in the movie, of course, but it is a common enough occurrence nowadays on Colorado’s rivers. It could become a common occurrence on your own land, as well, if a bill pending before the Colorado Legislature becomes law.

Under House Bill 1188, rivers and streams crossing private land will be forced open to all commercial rafting operations – no matter how poor a fit it might be with the land. No longer will rafting operators need to ask permission – tossing out an old standard of the West. They will be able to trespass freely no matter how much damage it causes.

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In other words, if a river runs through it, private-property owners will be up the creek without a paddle.

HB 1188 isn’t only a threat to the peace and quiet on private property; it also jeopardizes extensive investments many landowners have made in their property.

Ranchers run the risk of losing livestock when cattle restraints are breached by rafters. Damage to structures like ditch diversions, which channel water from the stream onto their land, could also result.

Some landowners also have improved their properties to attract other kinds of water recreation. One longtime dude ranch near Gunnison has invested more than $100,000 in upgrading trout habitat for fly-fishing along a stretch of river that crosses that property. The ranch faces a torrent of raft traffic if HB 1188 is enacted. That is sure to ruin the fish habitat and chase off the ranch’s guests.

River rafting can be a lot of fun and it’s a draw for the summertime tourist trade. Many other forms of recreation, including fly-fishing, also bring in significant tourism dollars. Why should the state Legislature take sides?

Commercial rafters have a duty not only to make sure they’re not degrading the environment but also to respect the basic rights of private-property owners. Although some owners of these sizable businesses seem to think otherwise, there is in fact no “right to float” on rivers when they cross private land. A 1979 Colorado Supreme Court decision made that clear.

The river-rafting industry does not need HB 1188. The industry has grown substantially by cooperating with private landowners. Commercial rafters for the most part respect private land, either working out agreements with owners to cross their property or taking their rafts out of a river at a property line and resuming float trips downstream.

Let’s not pit one form of outdoor recreation against another. There’s simply no need to give commercial rafters the upper hand on private land.

Scott Balcomb

Glenwood Springs


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