Of course, this has always seemed to me (and a few of my fellow angling friends) to be almost a dare to fish through private lands where the monster Browns are undoubtedly lurking. Hell, there have been times when we have floated for extended periods in “private” eddies or fished the privately made structures created by rich, out-of-state landowners at their private fly-fishing guest ranches. We love it, and have always considered our activities to be legal since we aren’t touching the bank or the river bottom.
According to The Denver Post, a 1979 state Supreme Court decision upheld the criminal conviction of a boater who rafted through private land, touching the river bottom and banks as he fished. But a 1983 state attorney general’s opinion concluded that rafters are not criminally trespassing so long as they don't touch the river bottom or banks. Later, a 2001 lawsuit raised the civil trespass issue again, but the case was dismissed before it could be resolved in court.
Colorado’s blurry laws regarding river access have left boaters and private landowners constantly squabbling about what is and is not allowed on rivers that flow through private property. If I fish and my fly hits the river bottom, is that trespassing? What if my raft bumps a submerged rock in a private section of river? Trespassing? I mean there is a layer of water between my raft and the rock, right? If the rock is wet and submerged, prove to me there isn’t a layer of water. Trespassing? What if a rich landowner builds structures to make it impossible to pass through a river without bumping rocks? That can’t be legal? Can it?
The point I am trying to make here is that nobody really knows what the state’s ambiguous law really means, so it needs clarification. Other western states allow for boaters to float through private land. Why is Colorado leaving its boating community in the dark on this issue?
This longstanding battle between whitewater rafters/floating anglers and property owners is currently coming to a head in the state legislature with House Bill 1188. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Kathleen Curry, aims to clarify Colorado’s river access laws by giving commercial rafting companies protection from civil and criminal trespassing actions.
This piece of legislature is long overdue. The measure would allow commercial rafters to accidentally or incidentally touch the banks of a river or river bottom without facing trespassing charges when floating through private land.
It would hold river guides liable for any damages inflicted on private property, and it would forbid boaters from fishing from private banks. Boaters trying to navigate water hazards, such as downed trees, would be allowed to briefly climb onto river banks on private land without being deemed trespassers.
HB-1188 is a bill that must be passed. Rafting and river recreation is simply much too important to Colorado’s tourism industry. According to the Colorado River Outfitters Association, wilderness outfitting brought $142 million into the state in 2008, and about 486,000 people used our rivers for recreation in 2009.
Why has the state’s boating community being left in the dark with ambiguous river access laws when the industry is such a significant contributor to the state’s economy? HB-1188 needs to be passed simply for clarification sake.
Of course, the proposed bill only deals with commercial rafting companies. There are many who believe the bill should also include language for private boaters. As both a part-time commercial guide and a private boater, I wish it would, too. Regardless, if HB-1188 passes, private boaters like me will be in a much better position to enjoy historically-run rivers. If the bill fails, criminal trespass charges against both commercial and private boaters will more likely be upheld in court.
HB-1188 needs to be passed. Colorado’s scenic rivers are too important to close and that’s exactly what will happen if HB-1188 fails. It will give legal grounds to prosecute boaters who simply love floating rivers – not trespassing on private lands. While I will always respect private landowners’ rights, this is about the use of Colorado’s water and river system, which should not be a privately held right.
While the bill meanders its way through the state legislative process, it’s not too late to contact your state representative and tell him or her what you think about HB-1188. Rep. Scott Tipton (Delta, Dolores, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel counties) can be reached at 303/866-2955 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.