In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion – and unfortunately, a fair bit of misinformation – about the issue of access and questions of Trout Unlimited’s role. Some have feared that the organization was bowing to wealthy donors and “selling out” the average angler by supporting (or at least accepting) efforts to lock up more and more water in private hands. Others have feared that local chapters and Councils are seeking to override existing private property rights to open up currently private water to public fishing access. The reality is that neither fear reflects the ongoing discussion within TU.

While the focus of CTU and TU has always been on our mission to conserve, protect and restore coldwater fisheries and their watersheds, there has also been ongoing engagement on public access in a variety of ways.

  • CTU was a leading advocate for the recently-adopted “Habitat Stamp” with the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), which provides funding for habitat and access. Indeed, the first project approved for funding from Habitat Stamp dollars was acquiring a permanent easement for public access to one mile of the Arkansas River – and the Collegiate Peaks Anglers Chapter helped provide part of the matching funds for that project, as well.
  • Over the years, CTU has helped with DOW acquisitions – for example, purchasing an option on a ranch in South Park that was then acquired by DOW, and helping secure title to a parcel on the Roaring Fork River that was transferred through CTU to DOW.
  • Last year, TU nationwide was among the leading voices opposing proposals to sell off National Forest lands into private hands as a funding mechanism for U.S. Forest Service programs – helping keep those lands public, for conservation and for the hunting and fishing access they provide.

There has been more debate and discussion about TU’s appropriate role in advocating for public access rights. In the case of CTU, this issue most recently came up in 2002 when legislation was proposed to criminalize the act of fishing while (legally) floating by private lands. After significant discussion, and with recognition that members of CTU had widely differing opinions, CTU’s board adopted a position statement that respects the current rights of private landowners and the public. In brief, the position indicated that CTU would not support measures that diminish existing rights of public access, nor would CTU support measures that reduce existing private property rights. Under that policy, CTU opposed the proposed criminalization of currently-legal float fishing. In contrast, we would not support measures like the “Fair Fishing Initiative” that would transfer existing private rights into public access.

More recently, TU nationally adopted a new access policy that established a working group to review access issues or conflicts that may arise and determine whether involvement by TU or its affiliates was in the best interests of the organization.  A CTU Past-President, Tom Krol, is part of that working group.  The national policy was built on a foundation very similar to CTU’s position – respect for private property rights, coupled with a recognition that TU could sometimes have an appropriate role in defending existing public rights.

The greatest challenges have arisen with the thorny and complex issue of what does or does not constitute “trespass” on private lands – something that varies with different state access laws.  What should TU’s role be in such disputes, if any?  It is the specific question of public access to rivers flowing through private lands, not the broader question of promoting public access, which has triggered renewed debate and discussion.  Initially, some members of the Board of Trustees proposed an immediate amendment to TU policies that would preclude all TU involvement in such access disputes.  After hearing significant concern from grassroots leaders about both the substance and process of the proposed change, those Trustees withdrew their amendment.  In other words, no policy change has been made.  However, a working group of TU grassroots leaders and Board of Trustees members will now examine the issue and offer recommendations later this year.

So while the recent discussions about access issues have triggered a great deal of concern and consternation, the reality is that TU is neither proposing to abandon public access and encourage the “locking up” of more and more public water in private hands – nor are grassroots leaders of TU storming the Bastille in efforts to seize private property for public access.  The real debate is focused on the narrower question of what is or should be allowed in terms of public access to rivers along private lands.  We’re all in the same “ballpark”, but the exact place different people would draw the line varies – and of course, the issue varies from state to state.  This is an important issue, and if you have recommendations that you would like to see considered as part of the grassroots/Trustees review, you should put your thoughts in writing and direct them to Steve Moyer, TU Vice President for Volunteer Operations, 1300 N. 17th Street, Suite 500, Arlington, VA  22209.  We’d also like to get your thoughts at CTU – 1320 Pearl Street, Suite 320, Boulder, CO 80302.