Uncertain future of Utah's riverbed access frustrates Morgan landowners

Monday , July 03, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner staff

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-story series on the fate of public access to the Weber River. This story explores the perspectives of landowners living along the river and the boaters and anglers who use it for recreation. Part one explained the background and legal status of whether riverbeds belong to private landholders or the public.

A mile and a half of the Weber River flows through Randy Sessions’ property in Morgan County.

His land is idyllic, pastoral. It has sweeping views of verdant Wasatch Mountains. Cows munch in fields of green grass with sprays of wildflowers. Cottonwood trees and corrals line river banks. Coyotes and waterfowl occasionally pass through to take advantage of the wide-open space.

From a knoll near Randy Session’s house, he pointed to a shallow section of river where the water splits around a small island.

“This is where it all started. This is where the Conatsers were,” he said. “Our son was on the road here and saw them and said, ‘You need to get back in your boat and leave.’”

RELATED: Where does Weber water go on the Wasatch Front?

That was in June 2000, when Sessions’ son was 18. Keven and Jodi Conatser, who were floating the river to fish, obliged. As they moved downstream to a neighboring property, however, they clashed with another landowner. This time, the Conatsers refused to go.

The brawl cascaded into an eight-year legal battle, which roped in multiple landowners including Sessions, and ultimately opened the Weber Riverbed to public access.

Almost immediately after the Utah Supreme Court ruled in the Conatsers’ favor, the trespassing and contention began.

“I was hauling hay up and down the road, and there were guys here like the second day after the ruling,” Sessions said. “I stopped the tractor and said, ‘You’ve got to stay (below) the high water mark — where’s the high water mark?’ There were three of them, and they all stopped and looked around and shrugged. I said, ‘It’s kind of ambiguous, isn’t it?’”

Sessions has confronted dozens of people walking through his property to access the river in the years since. The trespassing, he says, “is pretty regular,” and it’s almost exclusively anglers.

Some carry guns. Some have dogs that chase his livestock. One even chopped down a large tree growing next the river. It took out a fence when it fell. 

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“No trespassing” signs abound, but Sessions is constantly finding cars and trucks parked on his land near the river. 

“The anglers, I can guarantee you they believe in private property (rights), too,” Sessions said. “Do you know why? When I find their vehicles parked on our property, they’re always locked.”

A legal push and pull

Frustrations from landowners like Sessions reached the ears of state lawmakers. In 2010, they changed state statute and limited access of public waters to floating. 

The Utah Stream Access Coalition is fighting the constitutionality of the law. On the Weber River specifically, they’re arguing settlers used the river for travel and commerce before statehood, which would make the riverbed public land.

The Utah Supreme Court is currently mulling their case.

RELATEDUtah river access cases fight for public's right to stand on private riverbeds

Although a favorable ruling would mean a big win for advocates of recreation and public access, private landowners in Morgan County feel a sense of foreboding. 

“Morgan County is 96 percent private; it’s the most privately owned county in the state of Utah,” said Ned Mecham, who serves on the Morgan County Council.

He also owns property on the river, which has been in his family since the 1850s. 

“Most people who want to fish the Weber River. My suggestion is why don’t they buy some property so they can fish there?” Mecham said. “I don’t think it’s a private property owner’s responsibility to provide access for people.”

To be fair, the Utah Stream Access Coalition doesn’t think private lands should be open for accessing public rivers, either. 

They agree those using the river must get to the water from a legitimate access point, like an easement, right-of-way or a walk-in point where a landowner grants permission.

Story continues below photo.

What they’re arguing, however, is that once in the water, the public has a right to wade up and down the bed and possibly walk along the riverbanks, as long as they stay below the high water mark.

“Trespass laws need to be strictly enforced. That’s the remedy. We would not only not oppose it, we would applaud it,” said Craig Coburn, an attorney for the coalition. “Tubers are a problem. That’s usually who it is. Not kayakers, not anglers.”

Trash and trespass

There’s no question tubers are a growing problem in Morgan County. Austin Turner and his in-laws own property just below Taggart, the typical take-out point for tubers.

RELATEDTrash and binge drinking tarnish Weber River tubing

“If you can imagine it, we’ve found it in the river — from flip flops to clothes to floaty toys, to probably tens of thousands of beer cans, to broken coolers,” he said.

All the garbage constantly clogs up his irrigation diversion. 

“I don’t have problems with people tubing, but they jump in uneducated. They swing by a store, spend 20 bucks, get a floaty toy for a swimming pool, a case of beer and a styrofoam cooler and think they’re going to float down the river,” he said.
“The toy pops, the cooler gets away, and now it’s all trash in the river.”

RELATEDWoman rescued from Weber River after getting caught on debris

But Turner said his biggest frustration isn’t the tubers. It’s anglers.

“They park on the interstate, walk across our land to get to the river … If they make it to the riverbank, they’re like ‘I’m on public property,’” he said. “If they’re standing in the river, they think they’re safe. If they can slide into home plate and be touching water, it’s ‘You can’t do anything to me.’” 

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Turner said he sees several anglers trespassing through his property each day during the spring and summer. Some days, it’s nearly a dozen. They’ve left trash behind, too. They’ve also left cattle gates open so livestock wander out onto railroad tracks.

Turner’s tried setting up trail cameras to capture trespassers, but he says they keep getting stolen. 

“(For) people who live in the city with a quarter acre lot or smaller, any big, wide-open spaces are public ground — parks, things like that,” he said. “For someone (visiting) from the city to think, ‘That’s private property; I shouldn’t go on it’ — it doesn’t cross their minds.”

If people enjoying the river stayed in the river and cleaned up after themselves, Turner said he’d be open to the idea of public access to the stream beds.

The problem is, the ideal clashes with reality. And who can be there to patrol for trespassers all day, every day?

“The reality of it is, you have a certain portion of population that does not stay in the stream bed,” Turner said. “They basically run amok.”

A public records request to Morgan County found around 180 private properties intersect the Weber River.

“Some might own a whole bunch, some might have an acre,” Sessions said. “But the thing is, how many people are along the Wasatch Front? Well, millions. So what chance do private property owners have?”

Connecting both sides?

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources also has a program where they negotiate walk-in access with private landowners. The property owners, in turn, receive compensation funded by licensing fees. A handful of these sites are located on the Weber River in Morgan County.

“There’s a solution right now. Landowners can lease the ground and give fisherman access if they so choose,” Sessions said. “They want it all. They’re not willing to have just a little bit. They want it all.”

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Dawna Little Zukirmi wants to build a bridge between landowners and the public recreating on the river. She owns Destination Sports, a Morgan-based guiding service and outfitter that regularly runs rafting, fishing and tubing trips on the Weber River.

“I see all aspects of what’s going on between Echo and Morgan,” she said. “I totally understand property owners’ concerns — they’re valid concerns. I’m the kind of person that likes to look for a root cause and address those issues.”

All the trash and trespassing doesn’t benefit her and her business, either. She runs regular cleanups along the river in the spring and fall.

But the access conflict is creating all sorts of barriers for the river, Zukirmi said, like improving habitat for fish or building a kayak park that could provide economic benefits to the county.

Landowners have become resistant to any kind of change, she said, for fear that it will slowly erode their property rights.

“I think that change is really hard for people, especially in small towns,” said Zukirmi, who’s a lifelong resident of Morgan. “But if we sit around and do nothing, it’s going to get worse.”

She proposes setting up a fee area for common access points on the river, at least on the weekends when use is high. Those funds could help pay for educational signs and patrols to enforce the rules, she said.

“We’re not talking about restricted access,” she said. “Paying $5 or $10 to use something to recreate, that’s pretty standard.”

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She also thinks a favorable ruling for the Utah Stream Access Coalition could have a positive impact on the county, including for reluctant landowners.

“If they get their way, that will lay the groundwork for establishing some legitimate rules, helping to educate people, putting up signs saying, ‘This is where you can get in, and this where you can get out, and between here you can’t,’” Zukirmi said.

“But right now, there’s 5,000 people a day between Henefer and Taggart on hot sunny days. Every year there’s more and more.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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