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Unresolved by lawmakers, rafting rights issue could be headed to statewide ballot
A dispute over rafting access on the Taylor River was hotly contested in the Colorado Legislature this session. A ballot measure may be in the offing, with wide-ranging implications for boaters here in the Vail Valley (Gore Creek run pictured here).

Unresolved by lawmakers, rafting rights issue could be headed to statewide ballot

By David O. Williams

May 15, 2010 —  The company that prompted one of the more hotly contested bills of the recently completed legislative session – House Bill 1188 dealing with commercial river rafting – announced Friday it would allow two outfitters to float the Taylor River through its property this summer.

Officials for Jackson-Shaw, owner of the Wilder on the Taylor fishing reserve, said they will continue mediation efforts with Three Rivers Outfitting and Scenic River Tours while allowing the two companies to continue navigating the river through the private property.

Independent state Rep. Kathleen Curry, a former Democrat from Gunnison, introduced the rafting-rights bill this session after Jackson-Shaw shut down boating through the property last summer. HB 1188, which would have allowed commercial boaters to land on private property in emergency situations, died earlier this week in the waning days of the session.

Rafters say a 1979 Colorado Supreme Court ruling gives them the right to float rivers crossing private land, but some landowners have interpreted it to mean their property rights extend out into the river. Curry’s bill sought to clarify the confusion and end the legal wrangling.

Jackson-Shaw won’t allow rafters to fish the Taylor through the preserve, but they can portage a bridge (go around on land) as long they are “respectful” of the property, and the boaters must also limit the number of trips and stick to certain times and dates.

“We believe that these rules are reasonable and will allow the rafting companies to meet demand, operate profitable businesses, and conduct far more commercial trips through the property this summer than last summer,” Jackson-Shaw Chairman and CEO Lewis Shaw said in a release.

Curry told before she introduced the bill in January that she expected some serious resistance.

“The private landowners on those commercial stretches are still going to have serious reservations because [the bill] might not be what they want, but on the other hand it’s not right to be able to shut down a business that has been in operation for over 20 years with the necessary permits from the Forest Service for access,” Curry said. “That’s the conundrum we have.”

But she also felt there was something in the bill for landowners in that it would have clarified they would not be liable if a boater or angler was injured on their property.

“The bill defines incidental contact and portaging and limits [those activities] to just when necessary for safety reasons,” Curry said. “[The definition] doesn’t include stops to eat or go to the bathroom or anything like that– that would still be trespassing– but what would not be trespassing is if there’s a low bridge and it’s too dangerous to go under it and you have to portage [carry a raft on shore] around it.”

The Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA) backed the bill as well. Rafting and kayaking is big business in Colorado, with more than 50 licensed outfitters pulling in $142 million in revenues statewide in 2008, according to CROA.

Gov. Bill Ritter Thursday said he will work with landowner groups and the commercial rafting industry to resolve differences and avoid a looming ballot measure on the contentious issue.

“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 at a press conference in Denver. “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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