Colorado river rafters want voters to guarantee access

By Robert Weller The Associated Pressv
Friday April 05, 2002

DENVER — Colorado rafting groups, battling a lawsuit aimed at restricting passage through private property, will try to put an initiative on the ballot guaranteeing access rights. 

Colorado is the largest destination river rafting state in the nation. 

“We have tried to work out these issues in a discussion forum, however, recent events point to the need for these policy decisions to be in the hands of the citizens of Colorado,” said Kevin Schneider, chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. 

He said a small Lake City-based rafting company, Cannibal Outdoors, was forced to close its operation this week because of the cost of defending its right to raft the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. 

Four other outfitters will still float the Lake Fork while their appeal continues of a court decision declaring their activities to be trespassing. 

“Floating and fishing rivers is a part of our frontier history, quality of life and vital tourism economy,” Schneider said. Most other states west of the Mississippi River guarantee access to public waterways. 

Commercial river rafting in Colorado represented an economic impact of more than $125 million in 2001, according to a recently released report by the association. It represents more than 55 commercial river outfitters who work the state’s 13 world class river systems. 

Rafting supporters helped persuade the state Senate to kill a bill this session that would have outlawed float-fishing on waterways adjacent to private land without the landowner’s permission. 

A lawsuit seeking to block the rafters from floating the Lake Fork remains in court. A judge has rejected the rafters’ claim that the law guarantees them to right to float rivers. 

John Hill, the lawyer representing the landowners, said a ballot initiative guaranteeing the right to float private property would be unconstitutional unless landowners were compensated. 

Cannibal Outdoors was sued by landowners who wanted to stop it from floating the Lake Fork. Earlier this week Cannibal Outdoors sold its river rafting equipment and other company assets in an attempt to reorganize its business, which also offers jeep tours and hiking in the nearby San Juan mountains. 

Since June 1, 2001, when the lawsuit was filed, Cannibal Outdoors gained additional support from American Whitewater and the Colorado White Water Association. America Outdoors and the Colorado River Outfitters Association jointly filed a motion in support of Cannibal Outdoors.