Utah Supreme Court Restricts Public Access to Fishing on Private Lands
(Salt Lake City)
The Utah Supreme Court recently made a landmark decision on May 23, 2023 that has created shock … and a ripple effect … among fishing enthusiasts, landowners and conservationists alike. In a move that many didn’t see coming, the Court has decided to ban public access to outdoor enthusiasts who want to fish on waters flowing through private lands. This decision pivots Utah in the opposite direction … as has happened so many times in the past … from many Western states that have traditionally permitted such access.
A Look Back at the History
Traditionally, Western water law operated on the "public trust doctrine". This policy essentially posits that even if land surrounding a water body is private, the water itself was a public resource. The public could not trespass on private lands but they could access the waters through legal points of entry. This was particularly significant for states like Utah which boasts thousands of miles of streams, rivers and fishing spots. So many of these waters are adjacent to private land especially in the northern part of the state.
Why the Change?
The rationale behind the Supreme Court's decision was primarily to protect the rights of landowners. Landowners argued that allowing public fishing on waters passing through their properties led to issues of littering, trespassing, potential damage to the land and disturbances. They argued that this infringed on their rights as private property owners. From their perspective, it was a matter of balancing the scales of justice, securing their rights and interests.
Implications for Anglers and the Public
For Utah's vast fishing community, this verdict is a tough pill to swallow. Many favorite fishing spots might now be off-limits, curtailing an activity that, for many, is more than just a hobby. It is a deep-rooted passion and a means of relaxation and communion with nature. Beyond this, the decision also limits the public's general right to access their natural resources.
It raises the question: If water is a shared resource and if rivers and streams are essential arteries of that shared lifeblood, to what extent should any segment of the population be denied direct access?
Repercussions for Conservation
Beyond fishing, this ruling may also have indirect implications for conservation. When the public has access to natural resources, there's often a more substantial impetus for conservation. Engaging with nature typically instills a sense of stewardship … although not for everyone as you’ve probably observed. By potentially distancing a chunk of the public from these waterways, one wonders if the drive to preserve and protect might diminish.
The Road Ahead
States like Montana, with their Stream Access Law, have shown that it is possible to strike a balance between landowners' rights and public access to waterways. Such models could be a potential reference for Utah in the future if there's enough public sentiment to reconsider or amend the recent decision.
Legal battles like these remind us that the relationship between individual rights and public good is always in flux. As Utah navigates this new path, stakeholders on all sides will be watching closely and continuing to voice their opinions. In the meantime, Utah's anglers will need to familiarize themselves with the changed landscape and adjust their plans accordingly.
In the broader picture, this decision stirs a profound discussion on our collective rights to natural resources, property rights and the ever-evolving relationship between people and the environment. Whatever the future holds, it's clear that the dialogue on this issue is far from over.