Private Land Owners Keep Trying to Keep You Out of Public Streams


Every state within the West has some sort of regulation declaring that its waters belong to the general public. But what this implies is disputed, and several other state supreme courts have needed to determine circumstances that pit streamside landowners in opposition to paddlers and anglers.

Recreational customers have received most of those circumstances within the Rocky Mountain states, as courts have determined that public possession of water provides the general public a proper to entry the state’s waters. 

Colorado was the primary to place such language in its structure, and several other others adopted swimsuit, together with Wyoming, New Mexico and Montana. Other states, together with Utah, have such language in statutes.
But the beds and banks of many Western streams belong to the house owners of adjoining lands until the land alongside a stream is government-owned. That leads many landowners to see a stream as a part of their property, whereas paddlers and anglers view it as a public useful resource.
Recently, the New Mexico Supreme Court additional outlined entry, ruling that the general public has the appropriate to face on privately owned streambeds to boat by means of or fish — a loss to landowners who wish to exclude the general public.

New Mexico determined the primary case about leisure use of water that flows by means of personal land in 1945, when its supreme court docket dominated that the general public has a constitutional proper to drift on waters which can be owned by the general public. Dissenting judges complained about destroying property rights, however the precedent was set.

Other state courts have reached related selections about their state’s public possession legal guidelines. First, Wyoming, then Idaho, Utah and Montana all discovered that the general public has a proper to drift the state’s waters as a result of the general public owns them. But specifics range, particularly about public rights to the touch privately owned streambeds. For instance, there’s a proper to wade in Montana however not Wyoming. 

Only Colorado rejected public entry, as a divided court docket in 1979 noticed public possession of water as much less significant than historical property guidelines favoring landowners. Because Colorado has no public proper to the touch personal streambeds, an angler is suing to have the higher Arkansas River declared “navigable” — which means the state would personal its beds and banks.

This challenge flared up in New Mexico when the State Game Commission beneath then-Gov. Susana Martinez (R)) adopted a rule permitting a landowner to shut off waters flowing by means of their property if the fee authorized the landowner’s petition.  

The rule was all the time legally doubtful, however it took New Mexico’s latest Supreme Court choice to overturn it. The court docket dominated unanimously that the appropriate of public entry consists of strolling and wading on privately owned streambeds as “reasonably necessary” for fishing and different leisure makes use of.

Not surprisingly, New Mexico’s recreation group cherished the latest choice, whereas landowners didn’t. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) appeared relieved that the problem was determined, although not essentially thrilled with the result.

Her spokesperson informed the Albuquerque Journal that the ruling “provides needed clarity on the issues of stream access.” The governor had not advocated for public entry, and was broadly seen as having axed two Game Commissioners for his or her pro-access positions.

State elected officers and businesses have not often led the cost for public entry within the Rocky Mountain states. Except for the early New Mexico case, all lawsuits have been introduced by leisure customers, not state businesses. Sadly, elected officers are sometimes reluctant to assist entry regardless of the recognition of out of doors recreation, maybe due to the affect of rich streamside landowners.

That leaves the courts to play an important position, though they don’t all the time get the final phrase. In Utah, the legislature quickly curtailed the general public rights acknowledged by its supreme court docket in 2008.

Disagreements proceed about what waters are, and needs to be, open to the general public. But besides in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain courts haven’t allowed landowners to exclude leisure customers, largely as a result of the regulation declares that water belongs to the general public.

The latest New Mexico choice is the most recent to affirm that public possession means public entry.

Reed Benson is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an unbiased nonprofit devoted to spurring vigorous dialog concerning the West. He is a longtime kayaker and a regulation professor on the University of New Mexico, specializing in water regulation and coverage.


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