Colorado’s natural beauty — groves of aspen shimmering in fall, snowcapped 14,000-foot peaks bathed in alpenglow — has much to lure outdoor enthusiasts, from college-age tubers to private jet owners. For the wealthy in particular, there is world-class skiing and shoulder-rubbing in glitzy redoubts like Telluride, plus an attraction no other state can provide: the power to control some of the most storied rivers in the West.
According to federal law, the beds of navigable waterways are owned by states, which hold them in trust for the public.
But in Colorado, a series of unusual rulings have given landowners leeway to bar the public from riverbeds adjoining their property — and the water covering them, even if people float onto it after entering legally elsewhere.
Colorado has more than 100,000 miles of rivers, some accessible to the public without a landowner’s consent. However, in recent years, thanks to a population surge stressing the state’s prized natural resources — in addition to wealth concentrations unseen since the age of railway barons — complaints about haves and have-nots along its waterways have risen, bruising the image of a sportsman’s paradise.
Roger Hill, an old-school dry fly fisherman, is particularly angry. And he is seeking to do something about it. In 2018, Hill, 81, a retired nuclear weapons scientist, filed a lawsuit asking the state to clarify its notoriously muddy stream-access laws vis-à-vis one of his favourite trout fishing grounds. To the ire of many landowners, who see it as a threat not only to their privacy but to their property values, that suit has been progressing through the state court system like a slow-moving missile.
A victory against the landowners would “have staggering implications for settled agreements governing the use of our state’s rivers,” according to a statement from the office of Colorado’s attorney general, Phil Weiser.
Weiser, with legal support from powerful agricultural and real estate interests, has sought to have the suit thrown out. Advocates for landowners argue that the West’s natural resources are being “loved to death.” Colorado has one of the largest outdoor recreation economies in the nation. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this can have an impact throughout the entire economy here,” Hill said. He hopes the lawsuit will give anglers access to all navigable rivers in Colorado, including stretches long set aside for the exclusive use of invitation-only clubs and others that would essentially function as open driveways to sprawling private estates.
“It’s all very simple. I just want to stand in the water,” Hill said.
“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.”
In a state criss-crossed by iconic waterways, the Arkansas River does not stand out — except on weekends, when it may be the liveliest river in the West.
Source: Oman Observer