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CURRENTS 70: Negotiating to improve river access
To make it easier for river users to negotiate for improved public access, NOR directors realized during 2014 that there was a need for a short, inexpensive book that could be conveniently given to law enforcement officials, riverfront landowners, and people in river businesses and organizations—people who decide whether the rivers of the nation will be fully open to the public, or closed or restricted in many places. The goal was to make this new publication serve as a short complement to the full-length book, Public Rights on Rivers, published by NOR previously.
Therefore, from September through November 2014, NOR directors researched, drafted, and finalized the new short book, Public Rights on Rivers in Every State and through Federal Lands. This new publication explains the “national right to navigate” (and fish etc.) in just 72 pages.
It also explains what you can do about it: What you can do to restore public rights in the many places where they are restricted or denied. It explains how you can use federal law to negotiate with state and county officials, in any state. It gives examples of river access policies in seven states, from New York to California. These seven examples illustrate how you can improve river access in any state, whether state law in that state is supportive or not.
The new short book also explains what you can do about the wrongful river permit systems on the Grand Canyon, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and other popular rivers, which make it easy to gain access if you pay inflated prices to commercial operators, but hard to gain access if you refuse to pay these private businesses for access to public rivers. It explains how you can make progress toward getting a permit for your own trip, without applying year after year to a lottery, and how your progress can also help improve the overall fairness of these permit systems.
For the past three months, NOR directors have been distributing the book to hundreds of river-related lawyers, law enforcement officials, river organizations, river businesses, and related government agencies, urging them to help recognize and confirm public rights on rivers and large creeks nationwide.
These packets include one-page poster-handouts, "Public Rights on Rivers in Every State", which summarize the subject in a single page, with four key illustrations of historic and current uses of rivers. The packets also include individualized cover letters, explaining what the recipients can do to help public rights in their area.
New handout: How to negotiate
The packets also include a new handout, “How to negotiate about public rights on rivers.” This new downloadable handout makes clear that negotiating for river access is not a matter of boating or fishing on closed rivers, and it’s not a matter of confronting landowners or sheriff’s deputies along a river or riverbank. Instead, it’s a matter of making appointments with people in government, to discuss and negotiate about public rights to navigate (and fish etc.) on the rivers and large creeks of the nation.
The new handout acknowledges that river users will run into counter-arguments: Lawyers who work for certain riverfront landowners, and a number of people in government, will claim that only very large rivers, navigable in ships and barges, are legally navigable, while smaller rivers, navigable only in canoes or kayaks, are not. These people will claim that state governments have authority to deny the public easement on rivers that are navigable only in canoes or kayaks, that landowners have the right to string fences and “No Trespassing” signs across them, and that government agencies have authority to make people pay commercial operators in order to gain access to public rivers through federal lands.
Such claims go with the territory. They are part of life. Commercial interests make various legal claims, valid or not. They pay lawyers to make their claims look as legitimate as possible.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, and it has consistently rejected those claims. It has consistently confirmed that rivers that are navigable only in canoes or kayaks, seasonally, are legally navigable, and it has confirmed the public easement to navigate, portage, fish, and walk along the banks of those rivers, regardless of who owns the bed and banks in various sections.
The Supreme Court doesn’t rule on every case. It doesn’t swoop in to validate public rights on every river where they are disputed. It only rules occasionally, providing precedents that illustrate the legal principles that apply.
Therefore it’s up to people to apply those principles, state by state and river by river, discussing and negotiating with state and local law enforcement and riverfront landowners. Lawyers are often involved in such things, but in a democracy, lawyers and judges are not the only ones empowered to decide public policy. Citizens and their elected representatives are likewise empowered. You have the power to negotiate with officials to reconfirm the public easement on rivers that are physically navigable in canoes or kayaks. NOR materials make it easy for you to show officials that this public easement has been repeatedly confirmed by the highest court in the land.
Spring is coming. You can help improve river access rights in your area by downloading and distributing the poster-handouts, by making a contribution to the National Organization for Rivers, and by purchasing and distributing batches of the new short book, to river users, riverfront landowners, and government officials in your area.
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Your contributions to the National Organization for Rivers, and your purchases of books and materials, help to continue this process of negotiating to improve public rights on rivers nationwide. Thank you for your purchases and contributions.
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