Property Rights Versus Public Access on Trout Streams

Beaver grew up in Bellwood, Pa.--not far from the present-day headquarters of his club--on the eastern ridge of the Allegheny Mountains, the epicenter of the state's best trout water. For four generations, his family leased and owned 1,700 acres on the banks of the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River, excellent hunting and fishing land that they had to themselves.

But one fall day, just as Beaver was preparing to go off to college, his grandfather called and told him that the Army Corps of Engineers, through eminent domain, was taking the family's property to create a reservoir--later named Raystown Lake--for flood control and hydropower. The money the Corps offered in return for the land wasn't enough to replace it. His aggrieved grandfather drank himself to death within a year, Beaver says. "He had nowhere to go. He was really dispossessed and totally powerless against the government juggernaut."

This episode, Beaver says, was the watershed moment in his life. It propelled him, inexorably, to the creation of the Spring Ridge Club and the heated controversy that has arisen around it.

Beaver founded the SRC in 2001 with the belief that high-end flyfishermen would pay a premium to fish premium waters. He was right. Since then, the SRC has gone from five to 115 members who pay an initial fee of up to $85,000 and an annual fee of up to $7,200. The club has acquired prime beats on an all-star roster of Pennsylvania trout streams, including Spruce Creek, Penns Creek, Yellow Creek, and the Little Juniata River. But the SRC was met with almost immediate resentment. Some locals believed that Beaver, with the blunt force of the dollar, was taking away their fishing.

Fred Sherlock, 64, of Hopewell, Pa., would no doubt find Beaver's story somewhat ironic. Sherlock had fished a stretch of the spring-fed Yellow Creek, owned by a neighboring farmer, since 1960. But in 2005 he lost access to the spot when it was leased to the Spring Ridge Club. "I wanted my grandkids to fish that water with me someday," he says.

Beaver is quick to point out that in all cases he was merely acquiring private water where the landowners had already closed off public access, or had been planning to do so, and that he has even left some of the water open. He has little sympathy for anglers like Sherlock. "It was never his right to fish that water, it was a privilege. That was private water to begin with," he says. "I think there's a certain sense of entitlement that went with this privilege for some guys. If you're at the table as a guest long enough, maybe you start to feel like it's your table."

But in one case, he apparently overstepped his bounds. In 2002, Beaver purchased what was known as the Espy Farm, a beautiful, trout-rich 1.3-mile stretch of the Little Juniata that begins at its junction with Spruce Creek. The section was some of the best water the SRC offered to its members. When Beaver bought the property, he believed that the river there was private. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania and a local fly-shop owner named Allan Bright thought otherwise. In 2003 they filed a joint lawsuit against Beaver, claiming that the "Little J," as it's known, was a commercially navigable river under state law and thus open to the public. The case went to court last summer.

During the lead-up to the trial, Beaver became public enemy No. 1 in the state's flyfishing circles. Much of the vitriol against him surfaced on the Internet, where fishermen wrote with the impunity of anonymity. "I hate Donny Beaver," declared "Mark M" on a Pennsylvania message board. "May the defendents [sic] strangle on their own phlegm," wrote "Magalloway" on another. Somebody even started an Anti-Spring Ridge Club Club website.

In late January, a judge in the Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas decided against Beaver. The ruling, which reads more like a history lesson than a legal document, determined that the Little Juniata was used for the transportation of goods such as timber and whiskey from the end of the Revolutionary War until roughly the advent of the Pennsylvania railroad in the 1840s. Thus, the river was commercially navigable, or at least once had been, which meant that the stream bottom to the high-water mark was open to the public. Beaver is strongly considering an appeal, which would ensure continued controversy.

A NATIONWIDE PROBLEM
Similar battles are being waged across the country. At issue in each case is the clash of two entrenched American values: the right to private property vs. the principle that our woods and waters are part of our common heritage. Running beneath it all is the undercurrent of class warfare, which pits those with significant means against those without.

Montana, with its vast acreage and excellent trout waters, is a particular hotspot. James Cox Kennedy, the CEO of media conglomerate Cox Enterprises in Atlanta, is fighting local fishermen over access to the portion of the Ruby River that flows through the nearly 4,000 acres of his ranch. On Mitchell Slough, a part of the Bitterroot River, the billionaire discount broker Charles Schwab and the singer Huey Lewis have banded together with other landowners to argue that the slough is actually an irrigation ditch and shouldn't be open to the public. The Bitterroot River Protection Association says the slough is free flowing, which under Montana law would make it open to the public. In Ohio, a bill in the state legislature that's backed by powerful home-builder and real estate associations would close off access to the shores of Lake Erie to the public. It's being contested in court by fishermen, duck hunters, and the National Wildlife Federation. In Louisiana, a small body of water that either is or isn't part of the Mississippi River (depending on your side) is the focus of a tug-of-war between a group of fishermen who want to keep it open and a timber company that says it's private.

LOCKED FOR ITS OWN GOOD?
Beaver and other landowners believe there's a higher cause to be served by private water: the conservation of habitat that is rapidly degrading and disappearing. On many of his beats, Beaver claims he has improved stream banks and structure for fish. His decision to make the Espy Farm water on the Little J catch-and-release, he says, helped move the state to designate nearly the entire 13-mile river the same way. "And we're preserving these waters in the face of unplanned sprawl," he says. "The biggest threat to our streams is Home Depot stores and retirement communities being built on the banks."

Terry L. Anderson, the executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana, which promotes private-land ownership as a means of conservation, takes it a step further. "These private-land stewards improved the fishing on their land, and once they did so, everyone started arguing for access," he says, "If they get it, the net result is a diminution of incentives for private interests to save these spots."

But others don't buy the conservation argument. According to Sherlock, Yellow Creek had a naturally reproducing population of brown trout before Beaver came along. "Now he dumps in huge rainbows and feeds them pellets a few days before his guests come," says Sherlock, who last year formed the Yellow Creek Coalition to help convince landowners to keep their water open. Regarding Beaver's claim of a greater good, Allan Bright, one of the plaintiffs in the Little J case, says, "I don't want to hear him say he's protecting the resource. It's a moneymaking business and that's all."

Some have more pointed views. Floyd Wood, a retired farmer, says he fished Mitchell Slough, the piece of the Bitterroot under contention, since 1945 and only stopped because of the recently erected NO TRESPASSING signs. What's happening there, he asserts, is not conservation--it's merely the wealthy trying to hoard the best fishing for themselves. "Those rich fools said there was no fishing there until they came on the scene." Wood says. "They're lying. They just want to jet back to California and brag about the water they own."

To be sure, the decrease in the number of family farms in the nation and the growing financial burdens of those that remain have helped drive the change. So has a fear of lawsuits--stories run rampant about private landowners being sued for ankles broken on their land. But selfishness is a problem on the public's side of the debate, too. For years, Russ Schleiden left the half mile that his farm abuts on Pennsylvania's Penns Creek open to the public. He now leases that land to Beaver. The money that he gets from the SRC, he says, helps him pay rising real estate taxes, allowing him to hold on to a farm that's been in his family for a century (landowners get between $2,000 and $20,000 a year from the SRC, depending on the water's value). But another reason he found Beaver's offer attractive is that the public didn't always treat his property with respects. "We had to clean up Styrofoam and beer tops on the shore," he explains.

Beaver has not let the criticism of the SRC slow him down. Recently he's added steelhead rivers in Pennsylvania and in Ohio, and he's leased land on five different streams in Colorado. He acknowledges that decreasing public access is a problem and upbraids the greater fishing community for not organizing themselves. "They could do what I'm doing instead of bitching on the Internet. I'd even help show them how to contact landowners and raise money," he says. "Access is being lost at an alarming pace. I'm either going to watch it and moan or I'm going to participate."

Whether or not you agree with Donny Beaver doesn't really matter. One way or another it's going to cost you.