It’s anglers vs. rich moguls in legal fight over privatizing rivers

Travelers and locals cast fishing lines from the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River on June 21 in Bonneville, Oregon.

AP Photos

A Colorado fisherman has filed a lawsuit to prevent the state government from turning public rivers into private, members-only enclaves.



When the going gets tough, the clever go fishing. Few pastimes connect a person to the natural world like standing in a free-flowing stream casting for smallmouth or trout. The distant noise of commerce and the clamor of politics fade to nothing. For others, a long walk on the beach, the cry of seagulls and the eternal slap and sigh of the surf provide similar therapy.

So naturally, there are wealthy landowners who want to keep it all for themselves. No peasants wading in their private Colorado rivers or spoiling the view from their Florida mansions. Some would declare property rights to the Gulf of Mexico if they could.

If the phrase “private rivers” strikes you as odd, check out Ben Ryder Howe’s recent New York Times article about the ongoing conflict between fly fishermen, rafters and tycoons in Colorado.


Howe explains while federal law establishes that all navigable streams are owned by the states in trust for the public, “a series of unusual rulings have given landowners leeway to bar the public from riverbeds adjoining their property — and the water covering them, even if people float onto it after entering legally elsewhere.”

In extreme instances, Howe reported, fly fishermen have been shot at, although nobody’s been killed or wounded.

To sportsmen and women elsewhere in the United States, the Colorado situation is bizarre, although not particularly surprising to anybody familiar with the growing sense of entitlement among America’s cash-swollen new plutocrats.

In Arkansas, where I live, the conflicts described between landowners and outdoor recreation enthusiasts would be well-nigh unthinkable.

With a state Game and Fish Commission access point a half-mile downstream, it never mattered. A non-native species, trout flourish below a hydroelectric dam run by the Army Corps of Engineers; it’s basically a federal river. It’s also among the best trout fishing in the world, although fly fishermen prefer mountain streams.


Meanwhile, out in Colorado, an 81-year-old fly fisherman with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics has filed a lawsuit to prevent the state government from turning public rivers into private, members-only enclaves. Roger Hill told the Times he can remember when gaining access to his favorite pools and rapids wasn’t a problem.

As long as he was friendly and asked permission, the elderly angler said, he had no problems. “Nobody ever said anything,” he said.

All that has changed with Colorado’s rapid population growth, as outsiders with money moved in and what some call “amenity ranches” proliferated. “Along sections favored by trout and Mr. Hill,” Howe wrote, “‘No Trespassing’ signs sprouted up as real estate developers bought and subdivided the adjacent land.”

“Properties along rivers are luxury items,” Hill told the reporter. People who own them are all too often reluctant to share them.

“There’s a bigger issue here, which is the privatization of the commons,” Montana author and public access proponent Hal Herring told the reporter.

Like fisherman Hill, who professes “a childlike faith in the legal process,” I don’t see how he loses his lawsuit. Unless we’re just going to go ahead and declare the U.S. a hereditary monarchy, the rivers belong to us all.


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