Curry bill would keep river rights-of-way in public hands

Commercial rafting companies would be able to take their guests on rivers that cross through private property whether landowners like it or not under a measure Rep. Kathleen Curry plans to introduce next session.

Though settled in other Western states, the question of whether rafters, kayakers and fishing enthusiasts have a right to use Colorado’s waterways when they go through private land remains a sticking point between those users and private landowners.

While there is court precedent on the subject, exactly what it allows is still in dispute, the Gunnison lawmaker said.

Curry, who shocked the state this week with her announcement she is leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent, plans to introduce a measure to allow commercial rafters to traverse private land even without a landowner’s consent.

The issue was sparked anew this summer when a Texas developer, Lewis Shaw, purchased thousands of acres of land on the Taylor River in Gunnison County with the intent of reselling it as exclusive 35-acre ranches.

As a result, the developer notified two long-established rafting companies that they no longer could cross the land, Curry said.

A spokesman with Shaw’s company said he would not comment because he hadn’t seen the bill.

Danny Tomlinson, a Denver lobbyist who represents a landowners’ group that routinely opposes such measures, said he only recently heard about the proposal and wouldn’t comment on it, either.

He did, however, say his group doesn’t want to see anything that alters People v. Emmert, a 1979 Colorado Supreme Court case that ruled rafters who touch the bank or riverbed are trespassing, although some lawyers say that case affects even those who merely float through.

“We’ve had concerns about various different floating, fishing, trespassing kinds of legislation,” Tomlinson said of Creekside Coalition, a group of private landowners that is expected to oppose this measure, too. “We haven’t seen a copy of the bill, so it’s hard to quantify what our concerns would be, but we would have serious concerns if it made significant changes to the Emmert case.”

Bob Hamel, president of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, said the issue is one of jobs and fairness.

Hamel said the courts have long held that the water flowing down the state’s streams are publicly owned and that the right to float on it shouldn’t be an issue.

“We’re not trying to take away the landowner’s rights, but rafting is a $142 million business in Colorado, and it employs hundreds of people. We’re just trying to protect jobs and people’s livelihoods,” Hamel said.

“The new landowner on the Taylor, he flew into Gunnison on his Lear jet and said that he was no longer going to allow either of these rafting companies to float through,” said Curry of Shaw, the Texas developer.

“They’ve had permits for 20 years to run the stretch. They employ a lot of people, and one guy comes in and shuts it down. He has the wherewithal to bring it to a head legally.”


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