Lawmakers approve plan to protect river rafters
DENVER – Colorado rafters say they will continue to fight for the right to navigate the state’s whitewater rivers after a Texas development company threatened to shut them down.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday gave its approval to a bill that would guarantee rafters’ right to continue using Colorado rivers after supporters and opponents packed a hearing at the state Capitol. The bill was amended to include all rafters, not just commercial rafters. It now goes to the full Senate for debate.
The dispute began when landowners who developed a fishing resort on the banks of the Taylor River near Gunnison tried to bar rafters from interfering with fishing. Lewis Shaw II, president of Jackson-Shaw developers of Dallas, threatened to file a lawsuit.
Opponents, including Chris Sammons, a fourth-generation Coloradan, said supporters of the new law are threatening to unleash waves of rafters on property owners who have a right to use their land as they choose as long as they follow the law.
“It shakes me to my core that you would start down this path,” said Sammons, of Kremmling.
Greg Felt, a whitewater guide and fishing guide, told the committee both sports can coexist.
“We’re not here to undermine agriculture, we’re not here to undermine private property rights, and we’re not here to upset what has been, by and large, a pretty positive working relationship between agriculture and recreation. What we’re here to do is to try and preserve the status quo in face of attacks from various quarters throughout the state,” he told lawmakers.
The dispute escalated in December, when the company sent commercial rafters a letter saying “there is no credible interpretation of legal statute, case or authorization permitting rafting, floating or any transit through or over private property.” Shaw threatened legal action if rafters or their customers touched the riverbanks or river bottom while on their property.
The property has been developed as a fishing resort on the banks of the Taylor River near Gunnison, and the company contends rafters interfere with fishing.
Shaw said he gave rafters permission to use his property last year based on guarantees they would not interfere with fishermen. He said he was disappointed when hundreds of them took advantage of his offer, disrupting the fishermen, and he notified them he would not renew his offer this year.
The bill would give rafters the right to float on rivers in Colorado and limited rights to use banks to avoid obstacles.
Supporters said North Dakota and Colorado are the only two states west of the Mississippi River that don’t have strict protection for commercial rafters.
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