Thursday, December 11, 2008

River Access - Who's Right, Who's Wrong...Who Knows?

One of the hot topics among anglers here in Oregon is the one of who owns the beds and banks of the rivers of this state.
Should be simple shouldn't it? The Oregon State Constitution says they are public domain! The public is entitled to their use and even the state attorney general agrees.
Not so fast friends!
Seems that someone way back in the seventies in the Oregon legislature thought it politically expedient to muck up the pun intended. In some kind of back room deal they allowed the individual landowners the right to limit access along the river unless that river has been declared navigable.
So here is where we are today! In order for the public to legally access the bank of a river up to the high water mark that river has to be declared navigable by the Oregon Department of State Lands or DSL. The whole navigability process is a long and ponderous process and typically political charged not to mention expensive and extremely divisive.
River front landowners claim they hold deed to the middle of the river their land borders. Some do and some are mistaken but it just isn't that simple.
If their land deed is in fact accurate then unless the river that their land borders has been declared navigable (Eleven rivers in Oregon have been declared navigable in part or whole)then they have say so as to who may traverse the river along their property.
So you can see why this is such a confusing and emotionally charged topic.
The Association of Northwest Steelheaders has been at the forefront of the whole access issue. They have spent a great deal of their money and been subjected to more than a few IRS and Oregon Department of Revenue audit that challenge their non-profit status to determine who is right or wrong. They have been successful in getting most of the Sandy and John Day rivers declared navigable and I applaud them for their efforts.
One would think that the ultimate bad guy in all of this is the landowner! That is not the case at all. Sure there are some that are combative and down right belligerent when it comes to this issue. Some river front landowners have taken the law into their own hands and actually built barbed wire fences across some Oregon rivers along with illegally taking gravel out of rivers where salmon and steelhead spawning occur! Other landowners will let their cattle graze along the river bank which destroys critical stream side riparian zones.

The majority are simply trying to protect their property from litter, vandalism and abuse. They do not own huge tracts of land and in many cases their land has been family owned for several generations.
I cannot imagine owning riverfront property along the more popular salmon and steelhead rivers of this state. I've witnessed the vandalism and littering that occurs and am, without going into the sickening details, disgusted at what I've seen left by those who care nothing about the property of others.

Some over zealous river rights advocates have decided that the confrontational "in your face" approach is the way to handle this explosive issue. This has done little except to piss off landowners who might have been worked with on access issues.
So who is right? Landowners and public use advocates both are! Who is wrong? They both are!
There is no solution to this in the near future because the politicians have not had the intestinal fortitude to tackle this issue. Whether they be on the side of the river using public or whether they be on the side of landowners both large and small it is the politicians of this state that need to sort this out and the sooner the better.
My approach is to only fish where I am allowed to fish. I will respect a landowners request to leave his property and will do so immediately. I have never had a serious confrontation with any landowners because I will not belligerently take the attitude of some who think being confrontational and obnoxious and therefore getting what private land is open taken away. I have taken this stance which is surprisingly unpopular among the majority of fellow anglers but hey when have I cared about taking an unpopular stand?
So my best advice is always respect someone else's property. Do not litter and leave the river bank in better shape that you found it. I suggest knocking on some doors of private landowners and politely asking permission to fish their property. Take along a litter bag and collect up as much garbage as you can. That really impresses a landowner.
I feel this approach will win more friends than enemies in the long run.

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