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"I just don't want my boys to lose. I don't want those families who have children that run off and play in the streams to lose."
It's the emotional plea of 43-year-old Chris Barkey who fondly recounted 30 years of growing up playing and fishing in Utah's streams and rivers. But the smiles linked to those memories soon turned to tears when he shared his fears that his sons, 15-year-old Cole and nine-year-old Cooper, wont be able to explore the rivers like he did.
"They don't have those opportunities anymore," Barkey said. "Now they're going to get into trouble, for things we used to do as kids, like catching tadpoles and minnows, swimming and bouncing around."
Barkey's fears stem from a May 2010 law passed by state legislature, which states that anyone using public, recreational waters that pass through private property is not allowed to touch, or recreate on the streambed without permission from the landowner.
"You can't anchor. You can't stop and fish. You can't pull your boat over to the side and enjoy the sights," Utah Stream Access Coalition President Kris Olson said. "You certainly can't pull over at a bridge, get into the water and walk up and down stream as people have done since prior to statehood."
Formed in 2010, the Coalition's mission is to promote and assist in all aspects of securing and maintaining public access to, and use of Utah's public waters and streambeds, a part of the state's heritage dating back to the days of the pioneers, but Olson says it is now virtually lost.
The 2010 ruling is not only severe, it is far reaching, because it has restricted access to 2,700 miles, or 43% of rivers and streams throughout the state.
"That's almost half of a resource just gone, effectively given away to private interests," Olson said. "When you actually think about the gravity of that, it's massive."
On one side of the argument, homeowners say they should have the right to deny access to people they say are not respectful of their property. District 10 State Representative Dixon Pitcher agrees, but believes troublemakers are in the minority.
The rights of the general public should not be taken away because of the actions of a few. The key word here is 'rights'. Access to the waterways is not merely a liberty, but a right afforded to each and every Utahn, as stated in the constitution.
"If the public, through their taxes, pays for the mitigation of the streams, they pay for the fish stocking of the streams and waterways, then how can we deny them access," Pitcher said. "It's an issue we must address, because we really do disenfranchise many people from some of the very nice areas of fish habitat, and even some who simply want to bird watch or enjoy the outdoors."
The solution, Pitcher said, can be found in the Idaho Compromise, which allows Idahoans to utilize rivers and streams for recreational purposes such as fishing if they do not go beyond the high watermark in places where property is privately owned. The rivers and streams can be accessed by way of recognized easements, determined by the Division of Wildlife Resources.
Pitcher put forward a bill last March, outlining similar access for Utahns, but it was held up in the legislative session because state leaders decided to leave the matter for the courts.
"They didn't want the fight," Pitcher said. "They've got constituents on both sides of the argument, so they'd rather not deal with it."
The Utah Stream Access Coalition is expecting rulings on two lawsuits in the coming months. The first case addresses the constitutionality of the law, while the second will determine if the Weber River is navigable.
Federal law states that if a river was used for commerce or susceptible for use, then it is deemed navigable, and the title to the bed of that river is the property of the state, and therefore, the property of the public.
USAC has gathered evidence to prove that this is indeed the case, and will take this fight to the courts next January with the hope of regaining public access.
Olson credits USAC's outstanding legal team for their pro-bono work on the two lawsuits, however, to cover costs associated with court filing fees, calling expert witnesses, drafting reports and depositions he is asking membership, industry members and anyone with an interest keeping Utah's rivers free for all to assist with their goal of raising $20,000 by year end.
"We're coming from the position where we're fighting for the rights of the public here," Olson said. "We're challenging a bill that took away our rights and are trying to get it overturned so that future generations can use their rivers."
Chris Barkey believes this is a fight the people of Utah cannot afford to lose.
If we fail, he says, the implications for future generations will be devastating. It's why he is in it for the long haul. It's why Cole and Cooper have been fighting alongside their dad since they were only three and nine, sitting on the steps of the capital building, listening to what's going on.
They know what is at stake, and are determined to reclaim it, because, if Utah is to truly be the outdoor capital of the world, then the outdoors must be accessible to everyone, and first and foremost to those who call Utah home.
To find out more about the Utah Stream Access Coalition's fight, and to do your part to ensure Utah's rivers and streams remain accessible to all, please visit http://www.utahstreamaccess.org and call: 801.243.9626.