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Recreationists lobby in favor of water access bill

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SALT LAKE CITY — A crowd of outdoor recreationists gathered on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday to support a bill they say would be a compromise between private landowners and the public.

Currently in the House rules committee, HB37 would allow public access to waterways that, during times of high water, are navigable by recreational boats.

Historically, hunters and fishermen could pursue game along dry portions of active stream beds that went through private property. Permission from landowners wasn't needed so long as the person entered and exited the channel on public property.

When the Utah Legislature passed the Public Waters Access Act in 2010, recreationists were no longer allowed to walk on private stream beds without permission from the landowner, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Since then, Dave Isom's fishing has been limited.

"There's a couple of beautiful places I'd like to fish but can't," Isom said.

Isom, a West Jordan fishing guide, wore a camouflage jacket and fishing vest to the rally to show his support for HB37.

The bill would once again allow public access to areas at or below the high water mark — the highest point in a stream channel reached by water levels in a normal year. The bill would only allow entrance to the waterways on public property.

While in waterways, recreationists may not step above the high water mark onto private property except when necessary to avoid an obstacle in the channel.

"If a manmade or natural obstruction interferes with the use of a public access water, a member of the public may, along with a watercraft, reasonably portage around the obstruction staying close to the water and re-entering the water immediately upon reaching a safe place to re-enter," the bill states.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, said the bill would benefit both recreationists and landowners as a similar bill has done in Idaho.

"We're proposing a compromise that has worked in Idaho for nearly 40 years," Pitcher said to the crowd. "This does not intrude upon property rights. What we're looking for is a fair compromise in having access to these waters that you pay for. You pay for the mitigation, you pay for the stocking of these streams. You're the ones that finance this whole operation."

Utah's fish and wildlife management is funded mostly by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, according to DWR.

The bill would also prohibit littering in and around Utah's waterways.

"One thing I like about the bill is it requires people to pick up their trash," Isom said. "I hate to see trash in the river."

Isom said he recognizes the needs of landowners, but finding middle ground is key to "cooperation and camaraderie" between the public and landowners.

"Up until now, the fishermen have been giving everything and the landowners have been taking everything," he said. "This is a compromise bill, which means that we all give a little but we all don't give everything. This is a way to get everybody to meet in the middle."

Utah Stream Access Coalition President Kris Olson said the bill was written in the interest of both landowners and the public.

"Protecting private property rights and protecting the public's right to use their resource are not mutually exclusive ideals," Olson said. "Both are protected under the Utah Constitution."

The coalition filed two lawsuits attempting to restore public access after the Public Waters Access Act was passed, but will dismiss those lawsuits should HB37 become law, Olson said.

"The goal isn't to take away land from its owner," he said. "The goal is to find a win-win situation for both public rights and private property owners. HB37 accomplishes this."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com