Curry to float bill aimed at ending rafter-landowner rights disputes

The stories have reached almost rural-myth status in Colorado’s high country: rocks being thrown at paddlers, wires strung across rivers at head height, even occasional shots fired. The problem? Some private landowners really don’t like it when rafters or kayakers float through their property.

(photo: peckerwood pilgrim)

(photo: peckerwood pilgrim)

Colorado law says boaters have a right to navigate rivers and streams crossing private land — as long as they don’t touch the riverbank — but some landowners have interpreted a 1979 Colorado Supreme Court ruling to mean land rights extend to the river itself. Others have simply taken the law into their own hands.

Establishing rules

State Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison wants to remove the ambiguity this coming legislative session with a bill that would allow licensed outfitters to not only raft, kayak or fish on rivers and streams crossing private property, but also make contact with the riverbank without trespassing.

“The bill defines incidental contact and portaging and limits [thos activities] to just when necessary for safety reasons,” Curry said. “[The definition] doesn’t include stops to eat or go to the bathroom or anything like that– that would still be trespassing– but what would not be trespassing is if there’s a low bridge and it’s too dangerous to go under it and you have to portage [carry a raft on shore] around it.”

Curry said there’s also something in the bill for landowners. It would for the first time clarify that landowners are not liable if a boater or angler is injured portaging or during incidental contact on their property.

What prompted the bill, which is backed by the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA), was a case last summer in Curry’s district in which an out-of-state landowner bought a parcel for development and informed two permitted rafting companies they could no longer navigate that section of the Taylor River.

The money

Rafting and kayaking is big business in Colorado, with more than 50 licensed outfitters pulling in $142 million in revenues statewide in 2008, according to CROA. Of course, selling real estate is big business too.

“The private landowners on those commercial stretches are still going to have serious reservations because [the bill] might not be what they want, but on the other hand it’s not right to be able to shut down a business that has been in operation for over 20 years with the necessary permits from the Forest Service for access,” Curry said. “That’s the conundrum we have.”

There was some question whether Curry would remain the sponsor of the bill after she announced late last month she’s changed party affiliation from Democrat to Independent, but a spokesman for a lobbying group working for CROA confirmed Curry will remain the House sponsor when the session starts next week.

Curry will have some key Democratic support in the House from Christine Scanlan, a Dillon lawmaker whose district includes three counties, Eagle, Summit and Lake, all of which host numerous river outfitters. The nearby Arkansas River is the most heavily rafted river in the United States.

“From a tourism standpoint and a local economy standpoint, [the rafting industry] is huge … it’s a big deal,” Scanlan said. “I understand the landowners’ concern, but I think there needs to be some middle ground supporting that industry.”

Republican state Sen. Al White, whose northwestern Colorado district includes the popular Eagle and Colorado rivers, said he doesn’t see a need to change law that’s been in place for three decades just because of one situation on the Taylor River.

“We discussed this when I first came into the legislature and it was a difficult issue at best, and I guess I would just prefer to stick with the status quo as opposed to kicking over that hornet’s nest again.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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