A fight along Colorado’s waterways pits an alliance of white-water rafters and amateur anglers against some of the nation’s wealthiest landowners, bruising the image of a sportsman’s paradise.
By Ben Ryder Howe
Ben Ryder Howe, a freelance writer who frequently covers the American west, reported from Colorado’s Front Range.
Sept. 1, 2022
Colorado’s natural beauty — groves of aspen shimmering in fall, snowcapped 14,000-foot peaks bathed in alpenglow — has much to lure outdoor enthusiasts, from college-age tubers to private jet owners. For the wealthy in particular, there is world-class skiing and shoulder-rubbing in glitzy redoubts like Telluride, plus an attraction no other state can provide: the power to control some of the most storied rivers in the West.
According to federal law, the beds of navigable waterways are owned by states, which hold them in trust for the public. But in Colorado, a series of unusual rulings have given landowners leeway to bar the public from riverbeds adjoining their property — and the water covering them, even if people float onto it after entering legally elsewhere.
Colorado has more than 100,000 miles of rivers, some accessible to the public without a landowner’s consent. However, in recent years, thanks to a population surge stressing the state’s prized natural resources — in addition to wealth concentrations unseen since the age of railway barons — complaints about haves and have-nots along its waterways have risen, bruising the image of a sportsman’s paradise.
Roger Hill, an old-school dry fly fisherman, is particularly angry. And seeking to do something about it. In 2018, Mr. Hill, 81, a retired nuclear weapons scientist, filed a lawsuit asking the state to clarify its notoriously muddy stream-access laws vis-à-vis one of his favorite trout fishing grounds. To the ire of many landowners, who see it as a threat not only to their privacy but to their property values, that suit has been progressing through the state court system like a slow-moving missile.