Paddlers have successfully helped to defend the public right to float rivers and streams in South Carolina. In a decision released late last week, a South Carolina court rejected an attempt to privatize a section of the South Fork of the Saluda River known as Blythe Shoals. The Court ruled that the entire river – rapids and all – is navigable and shall remain open to recreational paddling. This is great news for South Carolina river enthusiasts!
When a landowner sued the State of South Carolina and the upstream landowner Naturaland Trust in late 2013, American Whitewater and the local Foothills Paddling Club joined the lawsuit to help defend the right to float. Nathan Galbreath served as our pro bono counsel with assistance by Jeff Harris, both of the law firm Nelson & Galbreath, LLC.
Nathan and Jeff coordinated the collection of numerous videos of people paddling Blythe Shoals at various levels and presented them to the Court as evidence with signed affidavits by the paddlers. When the landowners acquired an affidavit claiming the river was impossible to navigate in a canoe, AW’s Kevin Colburn and canoeist Chris Loomis made a video of a nonchalant canoe descent. As it turned out, creating and submitting paddling videos as evidence was an effective strategy. The Court decision cited this evidence as definitive proof of navigability.
The Court also upheld and reiterated over a century of case law that ensures navigability does not depend on commercial use, vessel size, two-way travel, actual use, ease of use, safety of use, use at all water levels, or use of all reaches. Instead, the Court clearly found “the standard for navigability rests on the potential for any public use, be it commercial or recreational.”
While this case may be appealed, we certainly hope it is not. Recreational use of rivers is a deeply valued and valuable tradition in South Carolina and nationwide. Responsible enjoyment of our public rivers is fully compatible with private property rights, and serves to connect countless citizens of all ages with nature in a healthy way. Our public rivers are the best, lowest cost, and biggest trail system in the United States, and it is in the public interest to maintain access to them. As always, we encourage paddlers to be extremely respectful of private property and courteous as we use public access areas, roads, and rivers.
We’d like to thank everyone who chipped in, including our pro bono legal team at Nelson & Galbreath, the State of South Carolina and Naturaland Trust who stood up for public recreational rights, all the paddlers that submitted evidence of their Blythe Shoals descents, the Foothills Paddling Club, and of course paddlers that support our work on projects like this through membership and donations.
The South Fork of the Saluda remains open to paddling!