Out of Bounds

Colorado’s River Access Two Step

Colorado has surprisingly regressive stream access laws

By Rob Breeding

Whenever I think East Coast media can’t be any more clueless about Western issues, I can count on The New York Times to parachute in and drunkenly shout, “Hold my beer!”

Last week The Times examined public river access in Colorado. Not surprisingly, the newspaper got it mostly wrong. The headline was the tell.

“Does This Fisherman Have the Right to Be in a Billionaire’s Backyard?” The Times asked. 

The question mark was meant to provide objectivity, I suppose, leaving unsettled whether the angler was breaking the law. When it came to whether any navigable river should be declared someone’s backyard,  however, The Times sided squarely with the billionaires. 

Colorado has surprisingly regressive stream access laws. Even neighboring Wyoming does it better, and in the Cowboy State dropping anchor in the wrong place can result in a trespass. 

In Colorado, the law is as murky as a mountain stream during high water. At least as far as state courts have ruled, private property rights extend into the river and rise from stream bottom to the sky, which means wading or floating or maybe even flying over in an airplane is against the law.

Montana remains the river-access gold standard where anglers can wade and fish navigable rivers and streams as long as they stay within the high-water marks. One would think a state that recently approved a ballot initiative compelling Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce wolves could also pass access laws bringing it up to Montana’s level. 

The Times’ story did try to explain the complex nature of river ownership in the arid, relatively undeveloped West, but just when I thought they were getting it came this howler.

 “We have to pay for conserving these lands,” Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, told The Times. “The public wants access, but it’s not willing to pay. Private landowners are holding that cost.”

The public doesn’t pay for conservation? I’m sure Allison’s job requires her to utter such nonsense, but The Times is neither required to repeat it, nor leave out readily available facts that show it is malarkey. 

For instance, earlier this year Colorado received more than $10 million from the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Fund. That money is paid by anglers in the form of excise taxes when they purchase fishing gear.

Maybe Allison considers standing on the bank of a river fretting about wading anglers an act of conservation. In fairness, her job is advocating for private landowners, who play an important role in conservation. But it’s also fair to point out that this sort of language weaponizes private conservation work, converting it into a tool used to deny access to public rivers and lands.

From Mitchell Slough to the Ruby River to the Crazy Mountains, Montana has had its share of “lock the riffraff out” disputes. 

The Sport Fish Restoration Fund is just one part of the public’s irreplaceable contribution to conservation. According to a 2015 Colorado Parks and Wildlife report, 78% of agency operations are funded by hunting and fishing license fees as well as Pitman-Robertson/Dingell-Johnson excise taxes. The other 12% came from the Colorado Lottery.

While the percentages vary, this is the story in most western states. The public foots the bill for wildlife management and conservation, while wealthy landowners try to privatize those resources.

We riffraff need to stay on guard. As Roger Hill, the 81-year-old angling advocate who is suing Colorado for access, says in the Times piece, “The landowners are going to scream this is a taking. And my reply is you’ve already taken something from me. I have looked at waters I had every legal right to fish for 40 years.”

Fight on, brother.

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