DWR program lets public have access to private land

(MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
A private property sign along the Weber River in Morgan County.
Story by Jeff DeMoss
October 5, 2011
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COALVILLE — Bert Leishman knows well the joys of fishing the Weber River on a sunny late-summer day. He knows his favorite spots, and while he’s on private property on this particular afternoon without written permission from the landowner, he’s not breaking the law.

Leishman is one of many anglers who take advantage of a six-year old program that has been seeking to strike a balance between private property rights and public access to some of the state’s best fishing and hunting grounds.

“We might not have total access, but this is a step in the right direction,” he said shortly after reeling in and releasing a healthy-looking 16-inch brown trout. “There’s still plenty of options.”

The Division of Wildlife Resources’ Walk-in-Access program provides opportunity for sportsmen and incentives for landowners. The program pays private landowners to provide public access to their property. Depending on the property and agreement with the DWR, the public may hunt, fish or trap on a given property.

The program was started in 2005 in DWR’s Northern Region, and landowners from the Weber River to Box Elder County were among the first to participate. Walk-In Access has since been expanded statewide, although there are few participants in the southern part of the state so far.

The landowners are compensated monetarily depending on the amount of acres and length of time they have been in the program. Landowners are also given liability coverage under Utah State Law, and their property is patrolled by conservation officers who check for violations, said Clint Brunson, who oversees the program for the DWR’s Northern Region.

The pay ranges from $370 annually for allowing hunters access to a minimum of 80 acres of land up to $1,680 for 5,000 or more acres; or from $625 for access to a quarter-mile of stream up to $1,323 for two miles or more.

The program was approved by the Utah Wildlife Board in 2005 as a three-year pilot program. Access is granted to the public on participating properties , but there is no motorized-vehicle traffic and hunters are required to sign a logbook.

Funding for the project came from sportsmen, the Habitat Council, the state Blue Ribbon Fisheries Advisory Council and federal grants.

All of the states surrounding Utah, except Nevada, and many western and midwestern states have a similar program in place. Brunson said Utah’s program was modeled after others in Wyoming and South Dakota. Most programs were started mainly to give sportsmen more access to hunt upland game birds like turkey, pheasant and Hungarian partridge, he said.

“There are a couple of key benefits. One is being able to cooperate with landowners to allow them to still have control over their property,” Brunson said. “Two is getting public access to the ground.”

From a sportsman’s perspective, the gaining of new hunting opportunities is important, especially in northern Utah where there is a lot of private land. For example, Brunson said east Box Elder County is almost completely private land.

The Walk-In Access program has been a success on the Weber River, which in recent years became a focal point in the dispute over public access versus private property rights.

In 2000, a Roy couple was arrested and charged with trespassing while floating the river because a private landowner accused them of standing on the riverbed, which qualifies as trespassing under state law.

The case went back and forth through the courts until 2008, when the Utah Supreme Court overturned the original ruling and determined that the public had legal access to natural waterways, even on stretches where they flow through private land.

General public accessed was short-lived, however, as the Utah Legislature moved quickly to restate the right of property owners to keep the public out, passing a bill in March 2010 that essentially nullified the court ruling.

Randy Parker, chief executive of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, has been a key figure in representing private property interests at the state capital. He said market-based solutions like the Walk-In Access program are a more reasonable solution for all involved interests than simply allowing sweeping public access.

“Farmers, ranchers and other landowners who pay property taxes on their streambeds and invest in wildlife habitat, including habitat for fish, should be able to sell that recreational property,” Parker said.

Access points are marked with signs, and river access areas can best be spotted by looking for fence-crossing styles that allow anglers to walk through.

Proponents of access say that while the current legal situation isn’t ideal, access programs are a good step. The best way to ensure and expand future public access is to be a good steward of the land, said Wes Johnson, vice chairman of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

“One thing that is not addressed are those landowners who will readily give permission if you only ask,” Johnson said. “This is especially true if you have a garbage bag that you can pick up others trash.”

Some may lament the fact that programs like Walk-In Access allow more people on land that was previously open only to select few who owned the property or had special permission to be there. But overall, Brunson said the program is a “win-win situation.” And every state that has implemented an access program has succeeded in doing so, he added.

For more information on the Walk-In Access Program (including maps of and directions to participating properties), go to the Utah DWR’s website, www.wildlife.utah.gov/walkinaccess/.

Jeff DeMoss

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