Utah Supreme Court rules in favor of stream access on Weber River

Thursday , November 23, 2017 - 10:37 AM

BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

The south fork of the Ogden River winds throw eastern Weber County on Friday, June 23, 2017.

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner staff

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court handed a major victory to anglers and advocates of recreation on the Weber River Tuesday.

The court ruled a one-mile stretch of the river a “navigable water” since people regularly used it to float railroad ties and mine timbers around the time of statehood. That means anglers, tubers and boaters can walk on the riverbed, even where the water flows through private property.

"Our rivers are part of our heritage, and have been useful to all Utahans since statehood," said Utah Stream Access Coalition president Kris Olson in an emailed statement. "They are 'gifts of providence,' our natural resource, and now in the case of this stretch of the Weber, secured for future generations."

The coalition has battled for access since 2010, first in the 4th District Court.

The Weber River access issue first surfaced in 2000, when Weber County resident Keven Conatser and his family were fishing the Weber River and occasionally walked on the bed and sandbars. A property owner told him to leave. When Conatser refused, a Morgan County deputy sheriff charged him with criminal trespass. Conatser appealed, and in 2008 the Utah Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

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Two years later, the Utah Legislature passed HB 141, limiting recreational access of rivers flowing through private lands. The Utah Stream Access Coalition challenged the law, arguing that the Weber River’s historical navigability made the riverbed open to public use.

The defendant in the case representing private landowners, Orange Street, argued in part that the Weber River couldn’t be considered navigable because it wasn’t used for passenger travel and that past log drives were only seasonal.

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The State of Utah, represented by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, was also a defendant in the case but maintained a neutral position.

On Nov. 21, the Supreme Court ruled in Utah Stream Access Coalition’s favor. 

Recently retired Justice Christine Durham only partly dissented, saying the case meant the State of Utah holds title to land beneath the Weber River. The majority of the court decided not to make a judgment on that matter.

Justice John Pearce recused himself from the case.

Although the ruling only applies to a one-mile stretch of the Weber River, it could set a precedent for the rest of the waterbody. Historical evidence largely gathered by Weber State University professor Sara Dant showed most of the Weber River and Ogden River were used to move timber for commercial purposes since viable road travel didn’t exist in the early days of statehood. 

In their statement, the Utah Stream Access Coalition noted the case can also be applied to similar rivers throughout the state to argue for public use.

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