Panel clears measure on rafters’ right to float

Rep. Kathleen Curry

A Senate committee floated a bill late Monday that would have allowed commercial rafting companies to traverse private land without permission.

The measure cleared the Colorado House last month almost entirely on a 40-25 party-line vote, with Democrats arguing that rafters have a right to float, while Republicans said it violated the property rights of local landowners.

On a similar party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee sided 4-3 with the floaters’ argument, saying the bill struck a good balance between the two.

As a result, some long-establish rafting companies along the Taylor River in Gunnison County said the bill could help keep them from being forced out of business.

Introduced by unaffiliated Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, House Bill 1188 initially was designed to clarify the existing rights of navigation for guides employed by river outfitters and to give landowners liability protection. It would allow rafters to have incidental contact with the river bottom and banks, but not to linger there, such as camping or picnicking.

Curry said she pushed the idea because a landowner in her county told two rafting companies that have been operating on the Taylor for more than two decades he no longer would allow them to traverse his property.

That landowner, Lewis Shaw, recently purchased thousands of acres along the river and plans to resell the land as exclusive 35-acre ranches.

Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton and the bill’s Senate sponsor, had offered an amendment to expand the bill for other recreational use such as fishing and tubing that won some support, but earned herself new opponents.

“We appreciate the value of the rafting industry ... but we also appreciate the value of other recreational industries, especially the fishing industry,” Reeves Brown, executive director of Club 20, told the committee. “The passage of this bill would open up a Pandora’s Box of who else are we going to allow this exclusive right to. If I were a hot-air balloonist and this bill passed, I would be next in line to say, ‘We should have an access right as well.’ And what about hunting?”

Lori Potter, an attorney for the Colorado River Outfitters’ Association, said 42 other states have right-to-float laws, all broader than this bill.

“Many (other states) allow fishing, many allow stream access for fishing, some allow hunting,” Potter said. “(HB) 1188 is much more limited … and still ensures that these two rights, the rights of the boater and the rights of the landowner, could still exist.”


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