Last week the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the public has a right to use public waters in streams and rivers, and along with that goes the right to walk on the water's bed.

It was a ruling Utah fishermen had hoped for but, to be honest, never thought possible.

What it did was open up sections of water — like on the Provo, Weber, Logan, Chalk Creek, Lost Creek and Beaver Creek — which were heretofore closed to access by private landowners.

Otherwise, it is now lawful to enter a river or stream from a public access point and walk upstream or downstream through private land to hunt, fish, boat, swim, float or participate in any reasonable and lawful recreational activity.

What happens next is predictable. Landowners will, if they haven't already, contact their elected officials and demand Utah law be changed ... and some legislator will no doubt write such a bill and present it to his or her colleagues at the next session.

It would be unfortunate if it passed, but worse bills have.

I see it as a test of sportsmen's unity, which is something I haven't seen a lot of in the past.

But if a bill is written that locks up these waters, and passes, sportsmen will have no one to blame but themselves.

There have been individuals who have worked long and hard to gain this right. To lose all the ground that's been gained here would be a tremendous loss of recreational and, in particular, fishing rights.

The vote is a strong persuader when used. And what lawmakers fear most is not getting those votes. Phone calls, e-mails and letters to lawmakers in support of last Friday's decision will carry a lot of weight if such a vote were ever called for.

All this started when Jodi Conatser, Kevin Conatser and Lacey Conatser were cited for criminal trespass in 2000 after floating and fishing along a section of the Weber River flowing through private land. During the trip, they stepped from the boat and touched the riverbed. It was that act that resulted in the citation. The reasoning was that the water was, indeed, owned by the public, but the riverbed was the property of the landowner.

They were found guilty in the Morgan County Justice Court and in 2nd District court. Then the case went to the Supreme Court.

Mike Quealy and Rob Hughes co-wrote the brief, and Hughes argued the case before the Supreme Court.

The justices ruled:

"The public has a right to float, hunt, fish and participate in all lawful activities that utilize state waters. The practical reality is that the public cannot effectively enjoy its right to 'utilize' the water to engage in recreational activities without touching the water's bed."

It ruled that along with ownership of the water came the public's easement rights in state waters, and that the public was entitled to this easement even if the water's bed is privately owned.

Those using the waters, however, need to show respect for property owners' rights and property. The access line is considered the high-water mark. Going beyond that point is trespassing. Accessing a river or stream over private land is trespassing. Entry must be from a public access point, be it a park, road or bridge.

Disrespecting the property owner or the land can only result in the loss of this right, so unite, show respect and enjoy the fishing.


E-mail: grass@desnews.com