By Stephanie Simon
DENVER—In a clash that some lawmakers have dubbed "Row v. Wade," rafters and anglers are squaring off over rights to prized Colorado waterways.
The debate has spilled into the state legislature and inspired at least 24 citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives. The core question: Do paddlers have an absolute right to float down any river in the state, even rivers that run through private property reserved for fly-fishing?
Steve Roberts says no.
His family owns a 150-acre dude ranch amid the aspens and lodgepole pines of southwest Colorado. The Taylor River runs through the property for three-quarters of a mile, and a few years back, Mr. Roberts spent $100,000 to reshape that stretch of the riverbed into a haven for trout. He makes his living renting cabins to anglers, who come for the plump fish, the Monday night steak fry and, above all, the serenity.
That blissful setting is fairly well destroyed, Mr. Roberts contends, when dozens of rubber rafts come bumping past, crammed with tourists of a less contemplative sort.
"They come bebopping right on through…going over the dam I built for the fish, yelling 'Whee!' " Mr. Roberts says. "I've got 60 boats a day doing that. My guests are unhappy."
Too bad, the rafting community responds. The state constitution declares Colorado's river water a public resource. Private landowners can reasonably lay claim to the structural frame of a river—the bottom, the banks, perhaps even the boulders. "But that doesn't mean they own the water," says Duke Bradford, who owns two commercial rafting companies. "You can't privatize a river."
This may sound like an obscure dispute. But it has been a thorny issue in Colorado for a century—in keeping with an aphorism, often attributed to Mark Twain, that out West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.
Over the years, rafters have accused ornery landowners of stringing barbed wire across rivers to topple them. Landowners, in turn, accuse rafters of making crude gestures as they float by and shouting what, in this context, amounts to an obscenity: "No one can own a river!"
The Colorado Supreme Court has issued two seminal rulings on the subject. In the early 1900s, it ruled that fishermen couldn't wade into rivers on private land to catch trout, even rivers stocked with fish by the state. Justices reiterated that stance in 1979, ruling that a rafter who touched his feet to the riverbank on privately owned land could be charged with criminal trespass. That might seem to put floating off limits.
"The law is clear," says attorney Dick Bratton, who represents landowners who want rafters off their rivers.
"The law is unclear," counters attorney Lori Potter, who represents river runners.
Ms. Potter says courts in several states, including Colorado, have ruled that trespassers can, in effect, earn the right to traipse through private land if they've been doing it for many years without being sued or arrested. Most such cases deal with hunters and horseback riders, she says, "but river rafting is just a variation on the theme."
She points out, too, that every other Western state protects the right to float through private property—though just last week, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill restricting such access to rivers that have been continually used for recreation for at least a decade.
"The question is, what's the matter with Colorado?" Ms. Potter asks.
Chris Sgaraglino says the better question is: What's the matter with river rafters?
Mr. Sgaraglino, a computer engineer from Colorado Springs, has been bringing his family to Mr. Roberts's resort for 13 years. Last summer, he was standing on a rock midriver, fly-fishing, when a raft packed with tourists bashed into him, he says, and knocked him into the water.
Even when they're not so aggressive, the rafters are downright annoying, he says.
"They're always yelling 'How's your day going?' What do you mean, how's my day going? I was fishing and you just ran right through me, so my day's not going very well any more," Mr. Sgaraglino says. "I'm fishing. I don't want to have a conversation."
Mark Schumacher, who runs tours down the Taylor River, says none of his raft guides would ever knock down a fisherman, though he acknowledges other floaters might get a little rowdy.
"I'm not saying they're all perfect angels," he says. The guides at his company, Three Rivers Resort, ask tourists to pipe down when they pass through private land. "Is there noise? Yeah, people talk," Mr. Schumacher says, but he insists it isn't obnoxious.
Moreover, his operating permit limits him to two hours a day of rafting on this particular stretch of the Taylor. The way he figures it, fishermen should be able to put up with that.
Indeed, they should be happy to put up with it, he says, since rafting creates jobs and generates about $140 million of economic activity in the state each summer.
"Everyone can co-exist," Mr. Schumacher says soothingly.
That remains to be seen.
Girding for the ultimate splashdown, landowners along the Taylor have threatened to sue paddlers who float through their land this summer.
To protect the rafters, state Rep. Kathleen Curry introduced a bill that would guarantee the right to float—and even to bump into riverbanks—on private property. Her bill passed the House with bipartisan support but was gutted in the Senate; so far, there's no sign the two chambers will reconcile.
With the legislature at an impasse, both sides have drafted a slew of potential ballot initiatives. Each side plans to test its formulations with voters, then settle on an initiative or two to back. It takes 76,000 signatures to get a measure on the November ballot.
Meanwhile, Mr. Roberts is readying his property, Harmel's Ranch Resort, for the summer season. The resort offers rock climbing, horseback riding—and, yes, white-water rafting, on the long stretches of the Taylor River that run through a national forest.
But Mr. Roberts says his livelihood depends on marketing his dude ranch as a peaceful retreat, an escape from the splashing, sunburned hordes.
"There's nothing wrong with rafting," he says. "But it's not as popular as fishing."