The Colorado House of Representatives on Tuesday approved HB 10-1188, clarifying the rights of commercial rafters, by a vote of 40 to 25. The bill will now go on to the Colorado Senate for review.
“Today’s vote shows that 1188 is a bipartisan solution,” said Ben Davis, spokesman for the Colorado River Outfitters Association, who noted that the House Minority Leader, Republican Mike May, voted for the bill. “Everyone wants to see Colorado’s rivers stay open for business.”
But certainly not everyone thinks HB 10-1188 is a good idea.
The bill has attracted the attention and opposition of private-property advocates, including the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Cattleman’s Association because it gives commercial rafting companies the right to portage across private land to avoid hazards in the river, such as a low bridge or a tree across the river.
“It’s not about floating the river, it is about trespassing outside of the river,” Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican and a rancher, said on the House floor while urging a “no” vote on the bill.
The bill also gives commercial rafting companies the right to continue to run stretches of river that have been run the last two years on a commercial basis, and it prevents private landowners from blocking their passage down the river, as a landowner along the Taylor River near Gunnison has threatened to do this summer to two rafting companies.
The bill requires that commercial rafting companies clearly number their boats so that property owners can identify individual boats if they feel there has been a problem. And it limits liability to landowners from boaters portaging over their land.
The bill is silent on the rights, or lack thereof, of private boaters passing private land.
Much of the debate on the House floor Tuesday went beyond the confines of the bill and focused on whether there was a broad “right to float” down Colorado’s rivers.
Rep. Bob Gardner, a Republican, argued that the Colorado Supreme Court decision in People v. Emmert made it clear that floating without permission equals trespassing when it comes to passing by, or floating over, private property.
“There is a Constitution,” Gardner said. “There are vested property rights. And we cannot simply disregard them.”
But Rep. Christine Scanlan, a Democrat representing Eagle, Lake and Summit counties, said on the House floor Tuesday that “you do actually have a right to float in Colorado,” citing language in the state Constitution that “the water of every natural stream, not heretofore appropriated, within the state of Colorado, is hereby declared to be the property of the public ...”
But Rep. Gardner said it was important to read the entire constitutional clause that Rep. Scanlan referred to, which is in a section on mining and irrigation rights. He said the Constitution deals with water rights and did not provide a right to float.
House Bill 10-1188 was sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Curry, an unaffiliated House member, and rancher, whose district includes Gunnison County and the Taylor River.
Curry remarked on the House floor that she has heard from a lot of landowners “who’ve had bad experiences with commercial outfitters” and that she hoped “we can all be honorable and respectful of others.”
She also said that there are broader rights to float, and wade, in other Western states such as Montana, Wyoming and Utah and that the agricultural industry in those states has not suffered because it gives boaters those rights.
And Curry pointed out that the Supreme Court in People v. Emmert stated that “if the increasing demand for recreational space on the waters of this state is to be accommodated, the legislative process is the proper method to achieve this end.”
Apparently a majority of her fellow House members agreed and sent the bill on to the Colorado Senate, where it is expected to be referred to the agriculture committee.
Davis, the spokesman for CROA, said the association was “expecting a tough fight in the Senate.”
He said Lewis Shaw, the private property owner on the Taylor River who is trying to develop an exclusive residential fly-fishing enclave — free of rafts on the river — has hired two powerful lobbyists to try to kill the bill.
“He’s willing to spend any amount necessary to shut down rafting on the Taylor River,” Davis said.
Shaw, who is based in Dallas, did not return a call for comment on Tuesday afternoon.