Herbert has family ties with stream bill proponents

Politics » Guv says sister's interest won't sway his decision.
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A contentious bill now on Gov. Gary Herbert's desk that significantly alters access to Utah waterways was the product of a bitter struggle between property owners and anglers that included a couple with an unusually close relationship to Herbert: his sister and brother-in-law.

About a mile-and-a-half of the lower Provo River runs across Steve and Connie Ault's Bear Valley Ranch, below Sundance in Provo Canyon. The waterway is recognized as one of the premier trout fishing rivers in the country.

During the legislative session the Aults were active in the battle over a bill restricting access to rivers and streams that cross private land.

That bill is now on Herbert's desk, and he has until Wednesday to sign or veto it. But the governor says that as he grapples with whether to sign the stream bill, his family's interests won't sway his decision.

"This bill, for them personally, has absolutely zero effect," Herbert said. "It doesn't matter to me what they say."

Steve Ault said he and his wife got involved in the issue because the filth that was being left behind on their land was too much to bear. But he and his wife don't plan to try to prevent fishing on the river and they haven't put any pressure on their brother to sign or veto the bill.

"We try to keep family and politics separate. Some things, of course, intermix," said Steve Ault. "I have told him, 'You do what's in the best interest of the state.' That's all we can expect."

For generations, the waters in the state have been publicly owned and those who want to use the waterways for fishing, boating or other recreation activities have been guaranteed access to the rivers and streams.

In 2008, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the public has a right to fish, hunt and float the waterways, including incidental contact with privately owned stream beds.

Private landowners cried foul, saying the ruling eroded their property rights. After a two-year battle with anglers and other recreation interests, the property owners prevailed with the passage of HB141.

The legislation would allow landowners to post signs and close off access to the waterways unless that area has been open for public use for 10 consecutive years since 1982.

Several lawmakers who supported the change own land that might be affected by enactment of the bill, including Reps. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, Mel Brown, R-Coalville, Ben Ferry, R-Corinne, and Mike Noel, R-Kanab.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, the sponsor of the legislation, said he believes the 2008 Supreme Court decision harmed constitutionally protected property owners' rights and his legislation was an attempt to restore those rights.

Recreation groups have lobbied Herbert aggressively since HB141 passed. Recently, owners of outdoor businesses and the head of the Outdoor Industry Association met with the governor asking him to veto the legislation.

Herbert acknowledged last week that he is being pressured on the bill and wondered if the bill strikes the right balance.

"I think there's concern about the stream access. It's got a lot of energy out there," he said. "We've created a kind of situation where we're adversarial, and I think it's a few that spoil it for the many. There are probably some issues there from a legal standpoint that need to be reviewed to make sure we're doing it exactly right. At the same time, you've got to respect private property rights. That's what's made America great."

The Aults spent considerable time at the Capitol lobbying for HB141, even though Steve Ault said its passage won't change the public's access to the river.

It would actually allow the public to leave the river and walk on the Ault's property, provided they stay within three feet of the water.

Ault supports the legislation, he said, because it clarifies the public access and would prevent the rampant trespassing and degradation of his property.

The Aults bought the 1,250-acre ranch along the lower Provo River 26 years ago. "That ranch raised eight really good kids," said Steve Ault.

Until recently, Ault said he hadn't had many problems with those who fish or recreate on the river, but the traffic has grown dramatically. People were leaving behind bottles and trash and the feces and filth along the river was overwhelming.

Last year, he paid $8,000 to install two outhouses, which were emptied once a week and generally stayed full.

"We've always tried to be generous with what we've been blessed with because, even though we own it, we feel like we're just stewards of the land," he said. "We've lost the ranch we love so much and we come up here to find parties going on and bonfires going on in the middle of the night and day."

Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council said if HB141 becomes law private landowners will benefit from waterways that are stocked with fish and cared for with taxpayer money.

"They're going to profit off the Utah taxpayer," he said. He said the lower Provo, where the Ault's ranch is located, will be closed off entirely to fishing and private landowners who charge for the privilege to fish the public waterways will be the only ones who will benefit.

Frankel said opponents of the bill are already discussing going to court to challenge the legislation.

Ault said some outfitters have approached him and offered to pay to fish the Provo on his land, but he isn't planning to start charging for the privilege. If HB141 becomes law, he says, anglers can still get to the Provo River via the train tracks on the other side of the river and can "fish to their hearts' content."

"It's not a matter of money at this point," he said. "We want our peace and tranquility back."

Stream access bill awaits action

HB141 passed the Legislature, with the help of intense lobbying by property owners and over the objections of anglers and recreationists. It now awaits final action by Gov. Gary Herbert, who faces a March 31 deadline to sign or veto bills.