Is Packrafting Illegal in Utah?

Just getting back into boating (via packraft) after 20yrs to discover that recreational use of many Utah streams has recently been revoked. In 2010, the usual characters passed Utah state bill HB 141 to redefine “Recreational Use of Public Water on Private Property.” As I read it, there are two major issues for packrafters:

  1. HB 141 prohibits walking on a stream/river’s bed or bank that flows over private land. (The only exceptions are for incidental touching and portaging a dangerous obstruction.)
  2. HB 141 prohibits stopping while floating in a stream/river over private land.

Thus without written permission from the landowner, one is only permitted to float a stream/river over private land, no scouting potential hazards, no eddying out to rest, no walking one’s packraft over low water sections. Not only does HB 141 make it more physically dangerous for packrafters, it effectively revokes public recreational use of many rivers and river sections throughout Utah. Lastly, HB 141 is blatantly unconstitutional.

I’ll be the first to admit I was completely unaware, although, not surprised, of these shinanigans by my state representatives. So I’m getting involved and urge you to get educated and take action. Even if you aren’t planning on packrafting in Utah, these same sorts of bills are likely making their way through your state’s legislature.

Here are a few links: - citizen action group leading the lawsuits against the State of Utah, buy a shirt/ hat, donate! - news from USAC - recent victory, withdraw of another terrible proposed bill, HB 68 - USAC Compromise Bill to revoke HB 141 - discussion of current law - nice summary of issues from Mike Iverson’s blog - recent SLTribune article - SLTribue article describing a bill to replace HB 141 - Ogden Standard-Examiner article describing the impacts of HB 141

Its unfortunate for a small percentage of boaters, but will be far from killing packrafting or boating
in Utah. I doubt river bottom land owners with exception of a few in the whole state would care if you waded through a couple of shallows or eddied out. It wouldnt affect the classic desert " float and drag" runs (and their access routes) because they are almost entirely on federal and state land. Which rivers are you most concerned about?

As a boater that has explored a few hundred miles of Utah rivers flowing through private property, I am not concerned. Almost all of the quality streams either run through state and federal lands, boater friendly land owners property, or just arent worth running. The user group this really hurts is the fly fishermen who want greater access. Realistically for Utah’s rivers, current regulation would only affect you if you choose to eat or rest outside of your boats (something that can be done inside the boat, and I dont see much chance of an owner being bothered if he does happen to see you eddied out), or do over-night boat trips through farmlands. You could of course run these as day trips without much worry. There are often riverside land owners that do allow fisherman access and have it posted with gates or ladders. You can hunt these down while driving to see whose property you may rest on. The law doesnt effect portaging around minor obstacles, and the only major obstacles are when diversions make the stream unnavigatable, which a little research would prevent. Many of these streams are featureless, not scenic, small, full of blind corners, and chock full of dangerous sweepers and fences. I think we would find more freedom in letting the issue sleep. I think fighting a war over increased river access in our individual case would add fuel to the flames of paranoia among conservative riverside farmers and ranchers here. Their minds are trained through ‘group think’ in their small communities to fight against any opposition no matter how irrational, even if it hurts them and contradicts their previous stances. If we let the issue sleep, over time they may loosen their reigns and be more leniant to boaters who have to tresspass their property for whatever reason. But if we fight a war against them, they may be more likely to file a charge against boaters for something as silly as an emergency extraction through their land from “their” river.

Hmm, interesting. So you’re proposing an appeasement strategy as a means for more access? I’m kind of in the other camp, namely 1) ya get what you ask for, not what you deserve and 2) don’t be afraid to stick up for your rights.

That said, you might be right though! Pissing off the private land owners around rivers is a bad idea leading to more vandalized vehicles and more barb wire fences across the rivers.

I think the USAC is striking a pretty good balance here though with their compromise bill. Basically, any stream on private property that can’t float a 6 foot log at high water is off limits to the public. Here’s a link to be proposed bill: and see lines 35-45.

No one wants access to tiny brush choked streams. But as HB 141 currently stands, everything is off limits, including key sections of the Weber and Provo. (I’ve been told that several of the “desert float and drag rivers” as you put it cross private land, including the Escalante. I can’t confirm this, it is devilishly difficult to get accurate maps of private land in southern Utah.) This whole fight began in 2000 when some boat fishermen were arrested for trespassing on the Weber. The raft fishermen took it all the way to the Utah supreme court and won hands down in 2008. That said, the 2008 victory for rafters and fishermen lead to the Zion curtain falling ala HB141 in 2010. (see for details). Scary!

As you’re aware, there are precious few quality streams/ rivers in Northern Utah to run. Loosing and or restricting access even one of these classics would be bad.

The Utah state constitution is pretty clear on this issue “All existing rights to the use of any of the waters in this State for any useful or beneficial purpose, are hereby recognized and confirmed.” - Article XVII, Ratified 1895.

In my opinion, the USAC compromise bill is a very viable solution to this latest conflict and well worth fighting for.

Its pretty stupid to illegalize eddying out. Thats like making it illegle for a motorist in the city to stop at lights and cross walks.

In contrast to what I posted earier, if I see a fence across over the Weber or the Provo river while paddling, without a sufficiently safe way of portaging and bypassing the barb wire fences, I am going to file a complaint or a lawsuit against the property owners everytime because I have been hung up by fences before. No bueno.

Totally! This is what happened with HB 141. It is a dumb knee jerk reaction that needs amendment. HB 141 will hopefully be thrown out on constitutional grounds. The USAC’s two lawsuits are very compelling. But… this is Utah water/ private property politics so nothing is guaranteed. That said, this issue isn’t going away so court victory would only be a victory until HB 142 comes along. Thus passing the compromise bill is the better long term strategy for guaranteeing public access to legitimate use streams and rivers.

Found a good site to assess river/ stream use restrictions in Utah due to HB141 . They also provide links to download Google Earth KML files so you can see what is off limits before starting your trip. There are a fair number of gaps in the coverage. Here’s a screen shot (red private, yellow public).