Colorado river-running groups in court to maintain access

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River floaters fight to maintain access.

The Associated Press.

12/4/01

DENVER (AP) – Colorado and national rafting groups have joined in a court fight to preserve the right to float on rivers that flow through private land.

The owners of the Gateview and Timber Bridge ranches in southwestern Colorado are trying to block Cannibal Outdoors Network Inc., a tiny company based in Lake City, from rafting on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River as it passes through their property.

American Whitewater, which has 8,000 members, and the Colorado White Water Association, the nation’s oldest paddling club, filed with the court to become co-defendants with Cannibal Outdoors, arguing a victory for the landowners could destroy an industry worth $122 million a year in the nation’s most popular whitewater rafting state.

“If we do not get a favorable ruling, it would be a major blow for rafting operations in Colorado, and could set a precedent for other states,” Kevin Schneider, chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, said Monday.

Jack Nichols, co-owner of Cannibal Outdoors, said his company runs only about 80 boats a year and has little effect on land lining the rivers.

“The amount of time we spend floating past the plaintiff’s property is less than 10 minutes. The amount of noise we make is minimal,” said Nichols, whose company is named for Alferd Packer, accused of killing and eating five gold miners on Slumgullion Pass above Lake City in 1874.

Schneider’s organization, which represents 55 rafting companies, and America Outdoors, a national association of 600 outfitters, are waiting for a decision on their request to be granted friend-of-the-court status to support the right to raft on every river in the state.

John R. Hill, the lawyer representing the Gateview and Timber Bridge ranches, said courts have not held that Colorado rivers are navigable, which would open them to rafters.

“It is clearly trespass if you have to get out of the boat. At certain times of the year you cannot float without getting out of the boat,” Hill said.

District Court in Gunnison is to decide soon whether a 1977 state law created a right for the public to float rivers.

Over the past two years, rafting companies, private boaters and private land owners, including the plaintiff and defendants, have participated in a River Surface Recreation Forum sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources seeking ways to accommodate landowners and floaters.

A “River Runner’s Etiquette and Responsibilities” guide, urging river users to leave no trace, was created and distributed to promote respect for private property.

Hill said efforts to resolve the conflict through discussions have failed, but Schneider said talks are continuing to try to settle the case before trial, scheduled for next year.

Schneider said outfitters are closely regulated by state and federal agencies. “There already is a hammer over our head if we don’t stick to the rules,” he said.
 

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