Rafting bill floats on, with changes
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DENVER – Colorado rafters say they will continue to fight for the right to navigate the state’s rivers after a Texas development company threatened to shut them down.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee gave its approval on Monday to a bill that would guarantee rafters’ right to continue using Colorado rivers after supporters and opponents packed a hearing at the state Capitol. Proponents had worried about the bill’s fate in the committee, but it passed on a vote of 4-3.
The bill was amended to include all rafters, not just commercial outfitters. Lawmakers also removed a provision that would allow portages on private land. The bill 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.
Bill opponents, including Kremmling resident 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,” Sammons said.
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.
Christian “Campy” Campton, owner of Frisco-based Kodi Rafting, said relations between the agriculture and rafting communities have historically been very positive for the most part.
“We’ve always been able to work it out and be responsive to each other’s needs, Campton said. “It’s when they sell the ranches to developers that it becomes a problem.”
The dispute escalated in December, when Shaw’s 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 measure guarantees that commercial river outfitters may float without trespass on rivers with a history of commercial rafting activity. It also ensures that accidental contact – like that of a rafter whose boat flips in a rapid – is not considered trespass. Recent changes to the legislation included removal of the portage provisions for rafters to temporarily tread on private lands in the event of an obstruction in the river.
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.
Club 20, an organization representing Colorado’s Western Slope communities, is among the bill’s opponents.
Club 20 executive director Reeves Brown said the group is very supportive of the tourist industry, the agriculture industry and private property interests. But Club 20 would rather see conflicts like that on the Taylor River settled locally through collaborative processes that would involve local governments, rafting companies, individual boaters and landowners. Brown said the proposed legislation goes too far in protecting the interests of the rafting community, at the expense of private property rights.
Furthermore, Club 20 opposes the expansion of the bill to include private boaters in addition to commercial rafters.
“It’s effectively impossible to regulate individual behavior,” Brown said. “If you own a piece of property, and a commercial rafting party goes through, and they stop on the bank, throw out a bunch of trash, defecate on your property and take off, you know who they are. Their vessel is marked. That scenario never happens, because commercial rafters have something at stake – their license.
“By contrast, if you allow every individual to float, you have no clue who that is. You have no recourse,” Brown added.
Campton said he’s relieved the bill jumped another hurdle. He’s not enthused the portage provisions are gone, but he still feels it provides meaningful protection for boaters.
“The portage piece was the biggest hang-up,” Campton said. “It’s kind of give-and-take.”
Campton said he has only portaged a handful of times during commercial trips, and those instances occurred during times of extraordinarily high flows.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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