Public opportunities to legally fish, hunt or float Utah waterways could be decided this week
SALT LAKE CITY – Years of legal uncertainty surrounding public access of Utah streams and waterways soon could be resolved, as the Utah Supreme Court prepares to issue a ruling on a controversial state law prohibiting public access on waters that cross private property.
On Monday, the court heard oral arguments on Utah’s stream access law. At issue is the public’s ability to access waters that flow across privately owned lands. Some landowners want to bar the public from fishing, hunting, floating or otherwise accessing these water resources.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a national sportsmen’s group with a growing presence in Utah, urged sportsmen and recreationists to advocate strongly for sustained and expanded public access opportunities.
“As more and more of Utah’s backcountry becomes developed, the public’s access to Utah’s streams and rivers shrinks dramatically,” said BHA Utah member Rachel Dees, who lives in Sandy. “BHA stands in solidarity with the Utah Stream Access Coalition in the fight to restore the access rights of all hunters, anglers, kayakers and other recreational water users.”
“I am pleased with the way the oral arguments in each case were handled by the justices,” said USAC Director Chris Barkey of Monday’s court proceedings. “They had several legal questions for each side. Our attorneys were nothing but pure class and proved their value in a court of law with knowledge and grace.”
In 2008, the Utah Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the case of Conatser v. Johnson that the use of public waters for recreation and other lawful activities permits citizens to touch streambeds, even if they are owned by private interests. In 2010, however, the Utah legislature passed the deceivingly titled Public Waters Access Act (H.B. 141), which outright closed public access on 2,700 miles, or 42 percent, of Utah streams and rivers. A district court decision in 2015 restored public access, yet that decision has been subject to a stay issued by a state Supreme Court judge. The court’s ruling could bring closure to this long-running dispute.
BHA Utah Chapter Chairman Josh Lenart urged sportsmen to actively engage in the fight for public access to public lands and waters.
“BHA understands the need to balance the public’s use of public water with the rights of private property owners,” said Lenart, of Salt Lake City. “However, such management decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the divisions of Wildlife Resources, Environmental Quality and Water Resources – not by an overreaching bill that removed public access to nearly half of the state’s fishable waters.”
BHA has launched a national campaign, Stream Access Now, to uphold and expand public access to America’s streams and waterways. Sportsmen and others can sign a pledge in support of stream access.