This Water Is My Water: Canoeist Fights for Rights

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A canoeist is headed to court for defying a “No Trespassing” sign on a creek in New York’s Adirondack State Park that passes through private property. Matthew Sturdevant writes in Canoe & Kayak magazine about the principled stand taken by paddler Phil Brown, whose case “is one of many potentially precedent-setting lawsuits and legislative battles pitting the rights of landowners against those of paddlers.”

It’s not just these narrow interest groups that have a stake in the matter, though: Such cases are important to anyone who values public access to public resources.

Brown, who as the editor of the Adirondack Explorer has previously covered navigation-rights issues, paddled straight into controversy when he skirted the sign during a 15-mile canoe trip in 2009. Staying on the water saved him from slogging through a three-quarter-mile portage, Sturdevant reports:

By paddling across Mud Pond and down a section of Shingle Shanty Brook, both of which pass through private land, Brown could avoid the carry. More importantly, he could show that the waterway is “navigable in fact,” meaning that it should be open to the public. Brown blazed by the “No Trespassing” signs and continued on to Lake Lila. The landowners sued him for trespassing.

Navigability is the linchpin in this case, with the landowner’s attorney arguing that the creek is typically nonnavigable. However, Brown’s trip down the river, which he wrote about in the Adirondack Explorer, may speak louder than words. And he has some welcome allies in state agencies, writes Sturdevant:

Attorneys for New York’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation are trying to intervene in the case on behalf of paddlers and the public. “The public has a right to travel and enjoy this beautiful waterway without being stopped or harassed,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says.

As a canoeist and a public-access advocate, I cheer Brown and the agencies for standing up to landowners who attempt to take over public resources as their own. I’m lucky to live in a city, Minneapolis, where urban park pioneer Theodore Wirth had the uncommonly good sense to make the shorelines of nearly all of our city lakes public–but I also live near one, Cedar Lake, where landowners have essentially taken over a public shoreline with their docks and fences. So I’m reminded every time I paddle there that constant vigilance is required to keep access–to both land and water–open.

Besides, I’m kind of inspired by Brown’s example. Perhaps the next time I canoe on Cedar, I’ll stop for a picnic on the shore, and if a landowner asks me to leave, I’ll politely say, “Sue me.”

Source: Canoe & Kayak, Adirondack Explorer, Star Tribune

Image courtesy of the Adirondack Explorer.

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