Both sides of the “right to float” battle are preparing to head to the ballot box this November.
A rafting rights bill in the state legislature carried by Rep. Kathleen Curry, whose district includes the Roaring Fork Valley, has stalled in the state Senate. The bill explicitly states that commercial rafting companies can float down rivers they have historically run and make incidental contact with private property.
On Friday, the deadline for filing text that could potentially make it onto the November ballot, rafting proponents filed two separate initiatives. Both would secure the right to float and make incidental contact with private property on the river bank without fear of trespass. One specifically mentions float fishermen. The proposals, however, do not limit the right to historically run rivers just to commercial rafting companies, as Curry’s bill did.
Bob Hamel with the Colorado River Outfitters Association said that the legislative bill attempted compromise, but if they go to the ballot box, right-to-float advocates will be asking for everything they want.
“We need the support” of all manner of boaters: commercial, private, whitewater and float fishermen, Hamel said.
Property rights groups filed 20 prospective ballot initiatives of their own on Friday, all with some variation of the theme that boaters cannot float through private property without the consent of the landowner.
“The public has no right to use the waters overlaying private property for recreational purposes without the consent of the owner of the private property,” reads one version of the ballot question.
Other initiatives filed by property rights groups explicitly state that river outfitters, not private landowners, are liable for any injury, death or damage that occurs while floating the river.
A statement from a group called the Creekside Coalition paints the ballot initiatives as a counterplay to what it calls “a fundamental and far-reaching political assault on private property rights and the state’s agricultural heritage” by the rafting industry.
“Colorado’s rivers serve as critical habitats for fish, birds and other animals. Turning our rivers into highways will devastate these fragile natural resources,” the statement said.
Both sides say they will stand down and withdraw their initiatives if a solution can be reached in the legislature; however, both sides want what the other appears unwilling to give. Curry nonetheless has indicated she will press on to conference committee to try and strip a Senate amendment from her bill that required the issued to be studied for the next six months.
While most western states have something on the books granting the public access to all rivers, Colorado operates under regulations in which floaters and private landowners have to work things out between themselves.
The issue came to a head on the Taylor River near Gunnison last fall when landowner Lewis Shaw sent a letter to Scenic River Tours of Gunnison informing the company that it would not have permission in 2010 to float through a section of the river running through Shaw’s property. Shaw, of Texas, is developing a luxury residential community on the Taylor River centered on flyfishing.
“(We) will be active and vigorous protecting and defending our rights and benefits we purchased with the Wapiti Ranch,” Shaw wrote in a letter to Scenic River Tours. “It is my firm opinion any individual or group or company rafting through our private property is committing an act similar to someone walking across your front lawn on a short cut to the grocery store. It may be convenient, but it is nonetheless illegal.”
Hamel said a similar threat has been issued prior to this summer’s floating season on the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs.
All the language submitted Friday will be reviewed by a legislative committee and screed for legal issues. If the language is cleared, initiative proponents will begin gathering signatures needed to officially place the language on the ballot.