Calming waters on the Taylor River

The announcement late last week that a major property owner on the Taylor River has agreed to allow two commercial river rafters to float on the river through his property is welcome news. It means that rafting can occur on that stretch of the river this summer.

But anyone who believes the fight is over and the dispute resolved need only look at the language employed by the parties involved last week.

Lewis Shaw, chairman of Jackson-Shaw, the company that owns property called Wilder on the Taylor — a fishing preserve — said his company had decided to “give permission” to Three Rivers Outfitting and Scenic River Tours to raft through the section of the Taylor River that flows through the property owned by his company.

In response, the Colorado River Outfitters Association, in a statement on behalf of the two rafting companies, said Shaw’s announcement was a positive gesture. But the group bristled at the notion that he had the authority to grant access to the river.

“The fact remains that neither of our companies” any other commercial or private boaters “needs permission from Mr. Shaw to float the Taylor River,” the statement said.

Actually, the fact is that when and where permission is needed remains a hotly disputed issue. If that weren’t the case, there would have been no need for the rafting-rights legislation that Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison carried this year, with the enthusiastic support of commercial rafters.

The bill died in the final days of the legislative session last week, and that’s fine with us. The original version of Curry’s bill dealt only with commercial rafters and would not have given the same rights to private rafters, kayakers or canoeists. Additionally, it did little to address the concerns of private landowners about boaters temporarily landing on their property.

The Senate gutted the bill so it would have only required a study of the rafting issues, but the House didn’t accept that.

Now both rafting enthusiasts and property owners say they may take the issue to voters through ballot amendments. But managing state rivers by ballot is a prescription for still more problems.

It’s true, as rafters frequently point out, that a 1979 Colorado Supreme Court decision made it clear that commercial and private boaters have legal access to all the “navigable” rivers of the state.

But it said those who float across private property on “nonnavigable” waters may be committing trespass. What’s more, there is no clear definition of what constitutes navigable water.

That’s why, when Curry’s bill was still pending, we urged that a statewide study be conducted to determine what is navigable and what isn’t. Until that occurs, there will only be an uneasy truce on places like the Taylor River, not a final resolution.

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