Logs of past may permit fishing
Attorneys for stream access proponents are compiling a history of South Summit’s logging economy to help them regain access to the upper Weber River.
According to attorneys Cullen Battle and Craig Coburn with the Utah Stream Access Coalition, a state law passed last year restricts access to river beds flowing through private land except for the purpose of floating.
They are currently fighting that law with a lawsuit filed in November. But last week they filed another lawsuit in 3rd District Court over a different issue that could achieve the same result on a portion of the state’s waterways.
The new law allows public access on "navigable" rivers and streams. According to Battle and Coburn, one hundred years worth of legal precedents at the highest levels have said that rivers used for commerce at the time of statehood count as navigable. Floating lumber meets that definition.
At the time of Utah’s statehood and for several decades prior, the Weber River was used by fur trappers, pioneers, railroad builders and miners to move merchandise and get lumber from the Uinta mountains to the communities that needed it, Battle said. Their legal team is currently commissioning a history of those activities that will be available to the public.
"When Utah became a state it took title to the beds of all the navigable waters in Utah," Coburn explained.
"These are public lands, not state lands," Battle said. "They are ruled by the public trust doctrine the state has the obligation to manage these lands in trust for the public."
If the coalition wins the lawsuit, the private property owners along the upper Weber will be forced to allow access to the public. The coalition also plans to file a similar suit against owners along the Provo River, they said.
The defendants in the case are those owners who have been most active in keeping anglers and boaters off the river, Battle said. Several have erected "No Trespassing" signs one near a public bridge. Another defendant, the Stembridge family, has erected a barbed-wire fence across the river, thereby endangering people legally floating the river, Battle said.
In addition to taking action to keep people off the river, the families listed in the case have also called the Summit County Sheriff’s Office reporting anglers as trespassing. Sheriff David Edmunds is also listed in the case.
The coalition is not seeking a monetary award, but a command from the court to remove the signs and barbed wire and stop reporting river users as trespassing, Coburn said.
The conflict over stream access began in 2008 when private property owners complained to legislators that strangers wandering through their properties violated their private land rights. The owners complained that some littered or damaged livestock fences.
Until the courts rule on the November case challenging the legality of the 2010 law, the coalition will fight to keep public access to public-owned riverbeds, Coburn said.
Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, was on the task force that wrote the new law, but he is not familiar with the contention on the upper Weber River.
He said the new law allows floating down the river, but also allows property owners to erect fences to control livestock. Both are allowed.
Brown said he believes a waterway had to be designated as navigable at the time of statehood for the laws cited by Coburn and Battle to apply. The Green River and Colorado River were designated as such, as were stretches of the Bear and Jordan rivers. But he does not believe the Weber or Provo rivers made the list.
If the attorneys are correct, then that presents a tax problem, Brown added. Private property owners have been paying property taxes on those river and stream beds since before statehood. They must be compensated if that land is taken from them, or was never theirs.
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