Acquiring Lands for Public Access and Conservation Along Rivers

American Whitewater works in partnership with conservation organizations, land trusts, and local paddling clubs to secure public access to rivers and protect the scenic character of the river corridors we enjoy. Protecting America’s rivers means maintaining access, water quality, and the wild and scenic characteristics that our members value. At American Whitewater, we generally focus our efforts on protecting smaller land parcels ranging in size from 1 to 5 acres. However, we have also worked successfully on public easement acquisitions that are as large as 500,000 acres, such as the Alberton Gorge in Montana.

Land and Water Conservation Fund (interactive map of river access projects)

Nationally, one of our most important funding sources is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF was established in 1965 to meet the nation's growing desire to preserve natural areas, culturally and historically significant landmarks, and outdoor recreational opportunities. Federal Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing provides the revenue for LWCF–the concept is a simple one where extraction of resources we all use provides some revenue for important access and conservation projects on our nation's public lands. Unfortunately only a fraction of the intended revenue from these leases has gone into the fund with the balance being diverted to general funds for other purposes. American Whitewater has long advocated for full funding of LWCF.

Example Projects

State Programs

Many states have grant programs for river access projects. In Washington State for example, programs like the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Partnership (WWRP) represent funds appropriated by the state legislature that are administered by the state Recreation and Conservation office (RCO). In Colorado, proceeds from the Colorado Lottery are used to fund Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a fund that supports projects across the state to help impact communities. Funds build trails, help open recreation facilities, preserve ranchlands and view corridors, improve and expand river quality and access, and conserve wildlife habitat. Michigan administers the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF). The state constitution requires that oil, gas, and other mineral lease and royalty payments be placed into the Trust Fund, with proceeds used to both acquire and develop public recreation lands. In Wisconsin the state administers the Warren Knowles-Gaylor Nelson Stewardship Program for the purpose of acquiring land to expand nature-based outdoor recreational opportunities and protect environmentally sensitive areas. The program is backed by tax-exempt general obligation bonds to support the stewardship program. And in California, the Natural Resources Agency and Department of Transportation have an Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program that offers $10 million each year for grants to fund projects that are related to the environmental impact of the modification of an existing transportation facility or construction of a new transportation facility. Grants can be used to provide for the acquisition and/or development of roadside recreational areas, among other things.

How We Work

Our preferred approach for access projects is to work with a land trust or non-profit partner with experience in land transactions and knowledge of the different state and federal funding opportunities. These organizations have the tools and experience to evaluate the title, negotiate the sale, and in many cases can purchase and hold the property while public funds are raised. This becomes particularly critical when a land owner is under time pressure to sell and the timeline to acquire grants and public funding is a much longer time horizon. In addition, these partner organization can often be influential in setting priorities for projects in the state and a productive partnership with them can significantly enhance opportunities for success. Our role is typically one of building public support and providing a first-hand perspective on the importance of a particular parcel. Partners love to work on great projects that tell a compelling story and we typically have the people and images to tell a great story. Typically, the best outcome for critical river access points is to bring them into public ownership and management by a county, state, or federal agency.

In a few cases, American Whitewater has directly acquired a river access point when no other partner can be identified. Given the costs and liability associated with land management, we view direct acquisition and long-term ownership as a tool of last resort. American Whitewater owns or leases access points on the Watauga River (NC), Blackwater River (WV), Elkhorn River (KY), Big Sandy (WV), Black River (VT), and Cartecay River (GA).

Considerations that contribute to significant public benefit of land & river protection:

Several conditions contribute significant public benefits to the public for land and river protection. Sometimes a single condition is sufficient for our involvement, as on John’s Creek in Virginia where obtaining access was our priority. At other times, our participation is based on a variety of factors, as on the Alberton Gorge where we have succeeded in protecting the entire river corridor for wildlife and scenic viewing opportunities. American Whitewater evaluates each proposal for its own merits, and bases its decision on a careful investigation of the property and the real public benefits that it provides. The conditions that we are primarily interested in are whether:

  • The property protects wild and scenic qualities of the river.
  • The property provides valuable public access to the river, where public access does not exist.
  • The property protects unique whitewater resources, such as waterfalls or rapids.
  • The property includes important wildlife habitat or buffers wildlife habitat from development.
  • The property remains in a relatively natural, undisturbed condition.
  • The property protects wetlands, which contribute to the water quality of the river.

Considerations that may preclude our involvement

There are a few circumstances which may prevent our Committee from pursuing an acquisition. Such a decision is not a criticism of the proposal. Rather, it reflects the Committee’s evaluation that the property does not fit within our mission or poses significant management difficulties that exceed our organization’s resources.

  • The property does not provide public access to a waterway.
  • The property will have significant management problems exceeding our protection abilities.
  • The property is zoned for development that conflicts with the conservation easement language.
  • The property will be exorbitantly expensive to maintain.
  • The property title is being litigated, or is unclear.

A few of the rivers where we have worked to secure public access: Watauga River(NC), Blackwater River(WV), Elkhorn River(KY), Big Sandy (WV), Black River(VT), Cartecay River (GA), Numbers of the Arkansas River (CO), North Fork Smith (CA), Hidalgo Falls (TX), Alberton Gorge(MT), Gore Canyon (CO), Coosa River (AL), and White Salmon River (WA).

The Private Lands Access Dilemma for Whitewater Boaters

By Rich Hoffman & Jason Robertson, Access Directors

A collision of two trends–the popularity of outdoor recreation coupled with the continued carving up of America’s open spaces–poses a growing threat to recreational access, particularly on our rivers.

From 1960 to 1987, there was a 515 percent increase in the number of people participating in whitewater sports, according to the 1987 President’s Commission on the Outdoors. Canoe magazine noted a 33 percent jump from 1988 to 1992. And the Leisure Trends group observed a 5% annual growth in sales through the 90’s.

Meanwhile, development along rivers continues at a rapid pace. Extractive industries (hydroelectric, timber and mining companies) own large tracts of land beside rivers, and residential development along rivers is as popular as ever. Concerns over liability and trespass have closed down access to some great whitewater runs. Unfortunately, this trend is going to continue.

The private lands issue has two-dimensions: 1) getting access TO the river, and 2) the right to float DOWN the river.

Getting TO the river

No law affords the public the right to access a river across private land. Projects 3 and 4 of the Access component in our Strategic Plan lists our goals to solve this problem. Many strategies exist, both temporary and permanent:

Temporary Fix

  • Simply getting permission from private landowner (cheapest).
  • Obtaining a license or a lease for the use of the property.

Since 1996, American Whitewater has signed a lease for the use of private lands on the Big Sandy (WV) and were granted permission to cross land for a take out on the Black (NY)

Success in this arena requires good negotiation skills and the ability to convince and demonstrate that allowing access will not cause problems. The most common roadblocks are liability and vandalism.

Permanent Fix

  • Acquiring an easement or title to the property (most expensive).
  • Having the landowner donate the land to a non-profit or public agency (there are many tax benefits that can be recognized through this option).
  • Having a public agency or partner acquire the land.

Because it is so expensive–and due to the difficulties of owning and managing land–acquisition is the tool of last resort. If this is the tool that is appropriate, a good strategy to raising the necessary money is to purchase an option (contract to purchase a piece of land at a certain price by a certain date) and using this as a fund raising appeal.

During 1995 and 1997 alone, American Whitewater partnered with public agencies (Forest Service, BLM and State of Colorado) to acquire a put-in to the Numbers of the Arkansas (CO), acquired title to a take out for the Blackwater River (WV), convinced the Forest Service to acquire a put-in to the North Fork of the Smith (CA), signed a purchase contract to acquire a take out for the Watauga (NC/TN) for fee title acquisition by American Whitewater, which was successful in 1998.

The right to float DOWN the river

This is a thorny issue, the key question revolves around who owns title to the bed and banks of the river. If the state does, we have the right to float and portage. If the private landowner does, the law varies wildly by state. As stated in American Whitewater’s Access Policy, we strongly believe that the public should have the right to travel in canoes, kayaks and other recreational water craft on the waters of all rivers and streams reasonably susceptible of passage, including the right to exercise the incidents of this right such as scouting and portaging in the least intrusive and temporary manner.

Through our volunteers, American Whitewater has compiled a library and summary of state law on this issue. In states that are restrictive of the right of public passage, there are several avenues to pursue, including:

  • Negotiation - Works if both sides are reasonable, a solution may present itself.
  • Litigation - We don't recommend this route unless you are virtually assured of success. In Colorado, a case lost in 1978 has muddied waters for the public and created a negative precedent on river access throughout the state.
  • Legislation - This avenue requires a lot providing information to legislators and landowners and may take years to resolve.

Regional Coordinators Assist American Whitewater

Regional Coordinators can help American Whitewater and the boating community in several ways. They can:

  • Help to identify key river access sites that are privately owned. Projects will be successful only if they are proactive; it is often too late to open negotiation with a private landowner after conflict. Particularly critical are access sites to rivers that are becoming more popular, more developed (i.e. recent house construction), more abused (i.e. people leaving trash), and property that will change hands in the near future. Research land ownership patterns by going to the county tax assessor's office and looking up deed information. Many counties utilize online GIS-based tools that allow you to quickly determine the ownership of a key river access point.
  • Serve as the local liaison between the landowner, boating community and American Whitewater. Land projects are local. Landowners tend to distrust those who are not members of the community and particularly those who may come from several states away.
  • Spread information about the navigability issue. Especially important is to be diplomatic and good neighbors to local landowners (often all they want is to be addressed with respect) and to NOT pursue litigation without a lot of research and a factual situation that is very advantageous to boaters.
  • Gain support in the local community. Maybe organize a trash clean up. Local boaters have organized a huge trash clean up on the White Salmon in WA, the shoreline of which is 60% privately owned. Involving local communities is an excellent way to build grassroots support and credibility for conservation and recreation activities.
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