The Right To Roam
Looking out across the beautiful, expansive Heber Valley, there is still a predominance of green fields and open space. Although housing growth is exploding in some areas of Wasatch County, the Wasatch Back, overall, still has much lower building density than the Wasatch Front. Open space is a widely discussed topic here. A majority of Heber Valley residents have indicated a strong desire to protect open space. It’s an important issue. However, public access to those spaces is a topic that is often overlooked.
Public access refers more to the status of a piece of land than the look of it. Sometimes called the “right to roam,” it involves the ability to wander, recreate, hike, hunt, camp, and otherwise enjoy land owned by the government or another person or entity. Aside from the discussions for open space, it is important to be equally aware of whether or not public access will be allowed on those open lands.
The Expense Of The Expanse
There are many types of public access, including entrance-fee National and State Parks, along with free public access to government-owned lands used for hunting, fishing, and other forms of recreation. Government-maintained lands come at a cost, however. Through taxes and fees, access is provided to these lands, which have been set aside for public use. It is an ongoing expense.
As recently as August 4, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act. This law will invest money into repairing federal lands’ infrastructure at a rate of $9.5 billion over the next five years; it will also fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund with an extra $900 million annually. Utah National Parks is requesting about $220 million for updates, including improving trails and other facilities. Many Federal lands throughout the country require repair and this Act will offer them money to do just that. In commemoration of the Act, August 4 has been designated “Great American Outdoors Day,” a National Park fee-free day. This will provide an extra calendar day for free public access to these preserved locations.
Another type of public access includes the ability to encroach upon privately-owned lands. Each country has its own rules regarding public access to private lands. In some Nordic countries, public access is extensive, allowing hiking, camping, and boating on another person’s property. Other property owners, such as those within the United States, are granted the right to exclude others. It is an ever-evolving issue.
The Utah Stream Access Coalition is a nonprofit created to “promote and assist in all aspects of securing and maintaining public access to, and lawful use of, Utah’s public waters and streambeds.” It uses “legal, political, and negotiated means” to accomplish this. For reinforcement, it cites the Utah Constitution, the Public Trust Doctrine, and the Utah Supreme Court. It was first created in response to a bill passed by the Utah legislature, which limited public access to rivers in Utah.1
The Utah Constitution originally stated that the public has access to all navigable rivers. This does not mean that the lands along the borders of the rivers are public, but rather that one should be able to float down the river through privately owned property. In 2008, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously held that, in addition to floating downstream, the public could touch the private riverbeds if necessary for lawful, recreational use. A 2010 bill passed by the Utah Legislature, HB 141, attempted to overrule the decision. The Utah Stream Access Coalition fought against the passage of the law. A lawsuit was filed regarding access to the Upper Provo River. Finally, in 2015, after years of battling the 2010 law, the Utah Supreme Court agreed with the Access Coalition. It determined that the law was unconstitutional, stating that, “Every parcel of public land, every reach of public water is unique. . . . The Act substantially impaired the public’s interest in the lands and waters remaining.” Access to privately-owned streambeds was restored.2
Since then, this coalition has continued to fight for public access to Utah waters in Wasatch County and elsewhere.
Profiting From The People
Public access to land and water is not only beneficial to those who use it for their recreation. This access also can increase state, federal, and local revenue. According to Fox13, Utah’s national parks brought in over $1 billion to Utah’s economy in 2018 alone.3
Wasatch County also benefits from public land access. Wasatch State Park, Deer Creek State Park, Jordanelle State Park, the Provo River, and the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest bring revenue to the Heber Valley by bringing jobs and tourism dollars to hotels, restaurants, and other local companies.
As both economic and population growth continues within our community, it is essential that access to natural resources remain available to the public. In the many discussions regarding open space, public access to those spaces must not be forgotten. The land and water recreation in Wasatch County are some of its most valuable assets, contributing significantly to both lifestyle and the local economy. Public access is worth fighting for and will help maintain the amazing opportunities available here in the Heber Valley.