The question of public access to waterways, especially for recreational use like fishing, continues to attract attention. As the struggle for stream access rights in Utah continues, articles and blog posts wrangling over who should control the waters of the United States emerge one after the other.
Many of the better known individuals weighing in seem to be taking a diplomatic approach, to put it kindly. For those afraid of ticking off folks with big bucks it makes a certain degree of sense. After all, why endanger your bottom line by taking a principled position? So it is that writer/guide Kirk Deeter, editor-at-large over at hook-and-bullet mainstay Field & Stream, displayed all the backbone of a scud when he recently blogged: “My personal opinion is that we should embrace a ‘what is, is’ philosophy. Different states have different stream access laws. If you don’t like the existing laws, go fish or own property somewhere else.” This is the sort of great “love it or leave it” philosophy that would have left colonialism, child labor, slavery and the unabated pollution of rivers and streams by industry intact. But hey, wouldn’t want to step on any toes.
Thankfully, not everyone is following suit.
Just under a year ago, John Holt (an outspoken veteran author who penned the fantastic book Yellowstone Drift) wrote about attempts at rolling back public access in his home state in “Trout Rustling Gone Mad:”
Greed, insecurity and just plain old “I got mine, screw you” bullshit is making itself more and more apparent in Montana when it comes to fly fishing. The situation often involves big-money yahoos locking up land access to prime waters by purchasing land leases from ranchers who own acreage on one of both sides of rivers flowing through their property. These leases effectively close off access to trout streams or make reaching the waters an extremely difficult and lengthy process. Former network news readers, has-been movie stars, over-the-hill writers and yuppie arbitragers are all part of a concerted effort by a few to deny fly fishing to many – a tangible metaphor for the escalating land grab perpetuated by the terminally wealthy not only in Montana but much of the West.
Anglers have to deal not only with attempts at destroying public access rights in the few places they already exist, they also face the monied interests buying up prime waters and closing them off to all but their buddies and/or clientele. In some cases this even includes waters stocked with public funds.
In upstate New York, the first section of the Salmon River belongs to Douglaston Salmon Run. The DSR, as it’s known, charges $45 a day or $450 a year to anglers who want to access a salmon population fully managed with funds from the sale of fishing licenses. Next door in Pennsylvania, guides like Greg Senyo cut deals to take their clients into private property where they can fish for steelhead that were bred and stocked with funds from fishing license sales.
Of course this kind of thing can even turn around to bite those involved in the ass. The current issue of Fly Fisherman Magazine has an article by Erie guide Karl Weixlmann (unfortunately not yet online), in which he frankly details the progression of his career. “Money had bought me. Now money had shoved me out.” Weixlmann started out guiding on public waters before going to work for Donny “the dick” Beaver, world-renowned for his continued attempts to buy up and close off public waters in order to sell the privilege of fishing them. Apparently the gravy train derailed and Karl is now “back to work at the lumber mill.” That’s one way to wake up.
As long as waterways are viewed as commodities to be bought and sold (by those with enough money of course), we will continue to see this sort of thing. In fact, with trends as they are (according to the Congressional Budget Office: “the share of total after-tax income received by the 1 percent of the population in households with the highest income more than doubled between 1979 and 2007, whereas the share received by low- and middle-income households declined”) we will see a lot more it.
Nothing short of movement toward something like the guaranteed public access to all rivers as exists in New Zealand (although even that is under attack) is going to change things.
Under the current conditions, it’s perhaps more likely to see more movement toward European-style river management: what was once reserved for royalty and nobles is now reserved solely for members of fishing clubs.
One thing is for sure, if it remains purely a question of money, relying on agencies in charge of public fisheries is a failing prospect. They may be able to secure some access. New York’s DEC has done a decent job of setting aside some areas for fishing, and even Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission has purchased some easements. But if it comes down to it, I very much doubt any such organization is going to go deep enough into their coffers to outbid a wealthy buyer, even if they could afford it. Look how they operate. As I write this, Pennsylvania’s misnamed Department of Environmental Protection and their pals in the PAFBC are busy selling the natural gas out from under the rivers, lakes and land to the detriment of the natural environment.
And don’t think Trout Unlimited is doing to do much for us on this issue either. Their biggest donations come from wealthy anglers (who probably fish more private waters than the average angler even knows exist) and corporations, and those are forces they don’t want to offend. It wasn’t long ago they were talking about getting “out of the debate over public access to America’s rivers and streams.” Like Field & Stream, they don’t want to step on any toes, especially if they’re covered in $500 leather shoes. According to TU’s President and CEO Chris Wood “It is all about habitat, and most of that habitat is on private land. Advocating for public access divides us from those landowners, and if we let that single issue dominate our work, we are not going to be able to accomplish our work.” Of course habitat can be managed even more easily when it is public property, but that thought never even entered his mind.
Just like his pal Huey Lewis, Wood dismisses criticisms of the rich and powerful buying up and fencing off prime waters as “a surrogate for class warfare.”
TU was finally forced into defending the Montana access laws by the members of the organization who actually live and fish in the state. In the article on the TU pulling out of the fight for access linked to above, a Montana member of TU expressed his (much justified) outrage: “This decision was made in the shadows by a bunch of East Coast city slickers who caved in to some rich landowners… They can reconsider it, or there can be consideration by us to break off and form our own group.”
The same article reads:
“Documents state that the organization needs to borrow from the model of the Nature Conservancy, or Ducks Unlimited, which work closely with multiple partners and who do not overtly advocate for contentious goals like stream access on private land.”
A prescription for the PA model: selling out natural gas from under a lake to pay for its upkeep. This kind of “partnership” is about as desirable for the general public as one between the American Cancer Society and the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
I ended my membership in TU years ago after reading a misanthropic screed against humanity in an issue of their magazine. It was just another indication of their general trajectory.
To reverse the trend toward making all the best parts of the world the sole domain of the wealthy and move forward, a major shift in society will be required. Entrenched organizations aren’t going to get it done. The impetus has to come from somewhere else, for example from large numbers of regular folks who are excluded from privately held waters.
The question of public access isn’t limited to Montana, Utah, Pennsylvania, New York or New Zealand. It’s an ongoing social question that eventually is going to have to be resolved one way or the other.
Refusal to deal with or even consider the real issue — the relationship between people, water and monied power — is a big part of the problem.