Boating bill swamped by controversy, may lead to summer of river conflict

A controversial commercial rafting bill – one of the most contentious issues of the just-completed legislative session – sank in choppy waters this week, launching an almost certain push for a citizen-driven ballot measure or two and giving rise to dozens of cliché boating analogies in the mainstream media.

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Wednesday reported no fewer than 16 pending measures backed by landowner groups looking to bar commercial rafting outfits from navigating public rivers flowing through their land and four pending measures aimed at opening private land to access in the event of boating emergencies.

Rep. Kathleen Curry, I-Gunnison, plunged into deep and very hot water in January when she sought to resolve a dispute between a Texas landowner and two commercial rafting outfits along the Taylor River in her district. The landowner shut down rafting through the property despite years of established and safe commercial rafting.

An uneasy truce has existed for years, allowing boaters to navigate rivers through private land and go ashore in the event of an emergency or the need to portage (go around an obstacle in the river). Generally, landowners have looked the other way as long as boaters didn’t abuse the situation by pulling out for lunch or to camp.

Curry’s bill awakened the wrath of deep-pocketed and powerful landowner groups seeking to keep boaters off their property altogether. They feared the bill could be interpreted in favor of rafting outfitters in future court rulings, exposing them to liability.

Now things could get ugly this summer, Curry worries, prompting a return to the bad-old days when property owners in places like Eagle County and elsewhere were known to string barbed wire and throw rocks at rafters and some boaters cut fences and took other extreme measures to keep rivers free and open to the public.

“The tensions are really high because we didn’t get this thing resolved,” Curry told the Sentinel. “Folks will have a chance to vote on the issue in general terms, but it doesn’t answer a lot of the on-the-ground details. The guns are out, and the wires are being cut, and the fight is on back home.”

Gov. Bill Ritter today at a press conference in Denver wrapping up the legislative session, promised to work with groups to find some consensus.

“I think that there is still a need for the outfitting community, the rafting community and the landowners to find a way to sit down at a table and agree on how manage this resource,” Ritter said. “And I am going to convene the parties in the very near future and start having a discussion.

“My hope quite frankly at the end of the day is that this does not go to the ballot. Our rivers are a great national resources for the state. The landowners have a stake in the conversation, a significant stake in the situation. We think that there is a path forward and we are going to work on that this summer.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy,
environmental and political issues for the Colorado Independent since
2008, delivering impact journalism on a wide range of topics. A former
editor for the Vail Daily and Vail Trail, Williams’ work also has
appeared in numerous publications since 1988, including the New York
Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He appears periodically as a
guest on Rocky Mountain PBS and David Sirota’s show on 760 AM in
Denver. Williams is the founder, part owner and editor of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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