In attempting to resolve Oregon's growing conflict between river users and landowners, Attorney General Hardy Myers muddied the water Thursday. Myers, responding to a request from the state Land Board, issued an opinion that most of Oregon's rivers are public, including the beds and banks.
Oregon's constitution says that, too. But in place of "most" the constitution uses "navigable."
The argument over the definitions promises to keep lawyers prosperous and river users uncertain and landowners outraged at perceived taking of their rights.
There are 12 navigable rivers in Oregon. They are "navigable" only because they have been named as such by the Land Board, courts or legislative rule. On those navigable rivers, the public has the right to use the land under the water and up to the point where the land and vegetation no longer show the effects of being submerged - the "ordinary high water mark."
Consistent with that is the Oregon practice of not taxing land under rivers or within the banks of the river.
Along the Umatilla River between Pendleton and Echo, the Cunningham Sheep Co. owns the land on both sides of the river. Umatilla's assessor office calculates the acreage comprised of the stream bed and subtracts that from the acreage taxed as the farm's land. The same practice is applied along the Walla Walla River in Milton-Freewater and elsewhere.
The state Senate is prepared to settle the issue of navigability for Oregon, and that's a step sorely needed. Time after time, courts have ruled on the definitions and found rivers that are navigable in fact are navigable by law.
States - all states, not just Oregon - were given the responsibility of holding navigable waters in the public trust by the federal government. That responsibility predates property deeds and makes state sale of those lands impossible.
River users want the state to emulate Wyoming's recreational river use codes, and there is much to be said for the protections that law provides the public and shoreline landowners.
However, those users are balking at the idea of registering nonmotorized craft and paying fees to use the rivers.
There is some concern that users paying fees are paying twice, but user fees are a fact of modern living. What is essential, however, is that those who use the river for profit - guides, for example - must pay a fee for the use of any public land or waterway.
Holding the land in public trust isn't consistent with holding the land for commercial enterprise. From guiding elk hunters in federal forests to floating anglers on the John Day to guiding duck hunters on the Columbia, there should be some compensation to the rest of the residents for the opportunity our land is providing.
This isn't all that testy of an issue, and the Legislature needs to provide the leadership to clear this up.