Rep. Kathleen Curry has sponsored legislation in the state House of Representatives that would solidify the right of commercial rafting outfitters to float on rivers that pass through private property. The bill, which Rep. Curry introduced last week, is riding on the support of the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA). Longtime Aspen-based outfitter Bob Harris — founder of Blazing Adventures — is gathering support for it within the Roaring Fork watershed.
The proposed bill results from an ongoing dispute on the Taylor River near Gunnison, where a new landowner has subdivided riverfront property and pursued civil trespassing charges against commercial rafting outfits that float through the area. In part, Curry’s bill aims to stop such legal actions by changing what many perceive as ambiguity in Colorado’s law regarding the right to float through rivers on private property.
Blazing’s Harris does not foresee any similar conflicts on the Roaring Fork or Colorado rivers in the immediate future, and believes that this law, if passed, would prevent any in the future.
“Most of us are not currently threatened by this,” Harris said. “But we could see conflicts maybe coming down the road. We know that if we don’t support those guys now, then it could be us one day.”
Commercial rafting contributes about $142 million to the Colorado’s economy per year, according to CROA.
The rafting association’s campaign for the so-called “River Outfitters Viability Act” pits Colorado’s homegrown river rats against well heeled developers from elsewhere: “The ability to provide commercial river running is under serious threat because out-of-state landowners using their wealth want to prohibit licensed outfitters from providing trips on historically rafted rivers,” their campaign fact sheet states.
Gunnison-based water attorney John Hill scoffed at CROA’s emphasis on out-of-state landowners.
“What does it matter if they’re from out of state or not? They still have the same constitutional rights,” Hill said Monday, arguing that the proposed act represents a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which protects private landowners from having their property taken for public use.
Hill further argues that the right to navigate across rivers running through private property — commonly called the “right to float” — is a fallacy. He cites a 31-year-old criminal case decided by the Colorado Supreme Court in which a man was convicted of trespassing for tubing through private land on the Colorado River. The highest court in the state ruled “the public has no right to the use of waters overlying private lands for recreational purposes without the consent of the owner.”
“There isn’t any right to float in Colorado,” Hill said. “That’s folklore.”
Hill is currently representing the landowners in the Taylor River case, where Dallas-based developer Jackson Shaw is attempting to bar rafting outfitters from floating the river through its property. Jackson Shaw’s subdivision on the creek has been billed as a boutique fly-fishing enclave for its owners, and the company has made improvements to the riverbed to enhance the quality of fishing there (which the developer claims is being damaged by passing river rafts).