Boaters, fences do not mix

Dolores River
users urged
to cooperate

During spring runoff on the upper Dolores River, boaters sometimes encounter fences strung across the channel, left over from summer and fall ranching activities.

The fences are legally installed to keep cattle from wandering, and they are usually pulled to the side during higher water, which cows naturally avoid.

Removing the fences during the spring and early summer boating season allows for safe passage of canoeists, kayakers, and rafters down river.

But sometimes ranch hands forget to remove the fence, or it is washed downstream, creating a safety hazard for boaters, fishermen and wildlife. Other times boaters remove the fence when it is still needed by cattlemen.

To negotiate through the sometimes choppy waters of multiple use, town officials, landowners, a rafting company and the Montezuma County Sheriff's Office want to educate river users of common sense practices.

"My concern is for the safety of rafters and canoeists regarding fences across the Dolores river," said Dave Huhn, a deputy handling agricultural and water issues for the MCSO.

"It becomes a liability issue for landowners if there is an accident because of their fence across the river, so it is something they will have to consider."

Huhn has been called to Dolores to investigate fencing conflicts on the river this year, he said.

Jay Loschert, director of Dolores River Boating Advocates, encourages ranchers and boaters to work together and realize the needs of other users.

"Taking the approach that we all use the river and benefit from it is important. There are ways to mitigate the situation diplomatically," he said.

Loschert reminds ranchers to consider the boating season when installing fences, and to either remove them during high water, or allow for safe passage through an open section or around them.

"If they feel compelled to keep a fence in, there are ways to accommodate their needs and the safety of boaters," he said. "Signs upriver directing boaters to a safe route through would be helpful. Flagging the wire is another good idea. Or constructing a fence [that is] safe for boaters but keeps cows away."

Using straight wire instead of barbed wire is ideal.

For their part, boaters have to respect private property rights when floating down any river. Colorado allows for floating through private land as long as the banks or bottom of the riverbed are not touched.

Bruce Lightenburger, owner of the Dolores River Ranch, has property on both sides of the Dolores River, plus the riverbed, and he installs fences across the river to control his cattle. He wants to start a dialogue with boaters so they understand they are floating through private property and to be respectful of his fences and property rights.

"We will continue to allow access, but we do not want our fences torn down," he said. "During high water we remove the fences for the boaters, but at lower water we put them up for our cattle operations."

Lightenburger uses straight wire, not barbed for his river fence. Boaters at lower water can gently lift the wire and go underneath it safely, he said.

"We've had campfire rings on our property and aggressive behavior about our cattle fence," he said. "We will allow access across our property; we're boaters also and want to share the river. But we are asking the boating community to be respectful, pick up trash, and not destroy or rip out our cattle fence. Please don't let our herd loose onto the highway causing a real danger."

Officials warn users to not trespass onto the banks, destroy property, litter, be disruptive, or linger within sight of backyards.

"It is a matter of common sense and being respectful when using the river," said Dolores town manager Ryan Mahoney. "More people are using the river, so education and information is key for everyone involved."

The Dolores is a mix of private and public land from Rico downstream. It flows through mostly private land from the West Fork to Dolores, a popular boating run.

A commercial outfitter in Dolores, Soft Adventures Rafting, offers raft trips and inner tubing on the upper Dolores River. Owner Tom Wolfe recognizes that fencing and boating don't exactly mesh well, but he says there is room for both with cooperation.

"It used to be that at lower water, when some fences go up, the boating season would be over. Nowadays, kayakers will float the river at 200 cfs or even lower, so these days there is some overlap."

Wolfe is researching PVC fencing being used effectively on other rivers. Sections of plastic pipe hang from a wire strung across the water. Cattle avoid the structure, and boaters can move through the PVC "curtain."

"They can stay up longer, and they don't collect debris like wire fencing does," he said. "I think we can come up with some workable solutions where boaters can go boating and cattlemen can use fences."