Where the Wild Things Are

Published on: June 10th, 2010

I don’t claim to be a “rafter,” but I have flown down rapids through town and country, ravines and canyon walls. It’s a frantic, frightful rush that leaves you wanting more, going face to face with Mother Nature, and with hope, living to tell your adrenaline-fueled tale.

Riding these bucking broncos makes us considerably more in tune with the wilds of Colorado, with summer’s siren song. You feel—as most of the Subaru-driving, Fat Tire-drinking studs of the outdoorsy persuasion—like you’ve earned the right to brag about adventure. You’ve hopped aboard an imperfect craft and traversed vicious rapids. You’ve tasted the waters of the Arkansas, and by making it to dry land, you may not have won exactly, but you are a winner.

It’s a trip worth taking. If for no other reason than to enjoy the recreational goldmine in your backyard. If for no other reason than to take advantage of your right to float.

Water issues are always contentious, and when interest groups have their lifeblood on the line, it’s as rough as the Arkansas. The rights of rafters have long been the subject of debate. This legislative season was no different; a tense cease fire between rafters and landowners in a picturesque part of Colorado was temporarily broken when Rep. Kathleen Curry offered up a pro-rafter bill. Her proposition would’ve let commercial rafting companies continue to run down specific parts of Colorado’s rivers without threat of legal action, civil or criminal. They would have been allowed to incidentally touch riverbeds and banks on private land.

The legislation sank—along with it the relationship between commercial rafting outfitters near Almont, Colo.
A state statute allows for the right to float down Colorado’s rivers, but the banks and beds are off limits unless landowners give commercial rafters the thumb’s up. Still, a 1979 State Supreme Court decision says rafters must have permission to float through private land. Whether landowners might be able to file civil charges for trespassing remains vague. The ambiguities put our rafting industry at risk; that’s an industry that brings in an estimated $140 million a year in revenues.

Landowners cite fear of liability if rafters are given free reign to trespass. And Jackson-Shaw, the Texas company that’s planning a private fishing resort along the Taylor River near Almont, says rafters will disrupt his business; the company said it would block Almont outfitters from floating through its property. They’ve briefly capitulated, but the Colorado River Outfitters Association is not necessarily calling it a victory.

“While it is a positive development that (Jackson-Shaw CEO Lewis) Shaw has backed down from his attempt to block boating enthusiasts and professionals from accessing a public river, the fact remains that neither of our companies nor any other CROA member outfitter nor any other rafter or kayaker needs permission from Mr. Shaw to float the Taylor River,” the Colorado River Outfitters Association said in a statement.

The issue will likely make it to the 2010 ballot; but it’s unclear if any measure can address the intricacies of the issue.

As rafting season begins, it’s a reminder that landowners and commercial rafters need clarity. It’s no longer acceptable to let both parties fight it out themselves. It’s only right that a state with such a bounty of beautiful, majestic and wild rivers has laws that give security to its rafting outfitters.

Because without the ability to float freely, summers loose a lot of their luster, adventure seems a little less accessible and Colorado’s summer siren song fades into something far less fantastic.

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