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Sportsman's Posted Paradise

June 2020, Volume 114

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Louisiana is known as the sportsman’s paradise. And for good reason. Louisiana falls in the middle of the pack when it comes to total area bounded by a state in square miles, around 30th in size. But with the many lakes, rivers, swamps, and streams Louisiana has the 5th largest water area measured in square miles. Coupled with our more than temperate climate we are one of only two states with year-round fishable weather in the top 5 states of largest water coverage. 


With just over 9,000 square miles of water surface across the state you would think there would be plenty to go around. Due to eroding wetlands and eroding rights, the sportsman’s paradise is quickly eroding as well. It’s bad enough we lose some of our natural freshwater areas to salt intrusion and coastal erosion, but when a public asset is pulled out from under the feet of the very taxpayers and preservationists that support it, an erosion of rights is afoot. 


The battle over historically public waterways has been fought for years. Typically these battles are fought by the states and in some instances the federal government.  Water rights are big issues and will only become more pressing with population growth and cyclical weather and climate patterns. The transitions of our state from populations of Native American inhabitants, through European settlement, and into a U.S. territory and eventual statehood all had water bodies as points of contention. These historical conflicts are now resurrected between the public recreational users and many who wish to privatize, post, and lay claim to historically public navigable water bodies, further eroding the sportsman’s paradise into a sportsman’s posted puddle. 


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Recently placed private canal sign in the canal system near Delacroix.  Image courtesy of LaSC.

While I’m the first to admit I believe if you own something the government nor anyone else should be allowed to tell you how you should control your property. But when historical precedents dictate something you claim to own is in fact unownable, your plenary control is invalid. This is what we see so often across our state. 


Whether it be landowners or corporations, interest groups or bureaucrats, many of square mile of historically accessible water bodies become inaccessible to the public each year.  Admittedly watercourses do change over time as their natural progression meanders the flow downward in elevation to reach the gulf, but this isn’t typically the cause of the conflict we are beginning to see so regularly. It would be understandable if a waterbody meandered from bordering a property to running through it that a landowner may feel they own that waterbody, but even then that isn’t what legal precedents have upheld. Navigable bodies, while fluid in boundary, have traditionally been upheld as navigable and not private regardless of the location of their waterbed. Sure you can maintain your ownership of the land based on historical boundary surveys, and if you want to fight for the mineral rights if a state owned water body migrates onto your land you stand a chance in court (albeit a small one), but as popularized in viral videos from on the water incidents, “You don’t own the water bro!”  


We can all remember the recent Waters of the US act and it’s numerous contentious iterations. While bridled back, it is still a far-reaching piece of legislation that dictates governmental ownership of navigable water bodies, in some instances even interpretable as a private pond in your yard, and subject to governmental oversight and regulation. One has to ask if that precedent has been upheld, how then can someone restrict the navigability of that water by putting up gates, fences, pile walls, and poles in channels?  Further, when private interests improve canals and waterways to the point the watercourse takes the improved pathway, allowing the traditional “public and navigable” path to become silted in and impassible, where is the responsibility?


Yet Louisiana continues to allow such restrictions on navigable water bodies. According to the Louisiana Sportsman’s Coalition, the latest fell under the auspices of a lack of public comment, most likely dictated by the stay at home order issued by the government, yet was still “allowed” to proceed, despite not having a US Army Corps of Engineers permit to close a navigable channel. It makes you wonder just how far government has come from its roots as being “of, by, and for the people” in this land. With so much of the regulatory load being shifted to pseudo-governmental institutions in lieu of elected governing bodies, bureaucracy within the water access battle has been allowed to run rampant. 


Not just limited to the battle of navigability facing so many in south Louisiana, but also the controls of water access on state owned lakes. Many state-owned lakes have minimal public access and their regulation authority outside of statutory criminal law has often been relegated to local pseudo-governmental bodies such as appointed boards and commissions. These boards are most often comprised of appointed bureaucrats instead of elected officials. This in essence removes the first amendment right to petition the government on these issues, effectively removing the ability to hold government accountable by shifting governmental tasks to non-governmental entities. With many agreements for management of state-owned water bodies codified by statutes as giving these boards “plenary” control, this is a clear way of muddying the water when it comes to authority and regulatory control.  With the recent loss of Catahoula Lake from the public domain, it is more clear now than ever that sportsman’s rights are being eroded. 


Another such example is the recent drastic increase of “no-wake” and “idle only” mandates on many lakes across the state. In nearly all cases these orders did not come from a governmental body and were not enacted at the behest of LDWF, the accepted universal law enforcement authority on state water bodies. Rather, many of these orders were issued by boards full of bureaucrats who took an appointment because they may have property interest on the waterbody. Much of this was due to inappropriate building elevations to begin with, yet the accessibility of the state resource is limited because some folks saved some money to build a pier lower. Don’t get me wrong, if there’s an inhabited dwelling that is being inundated there isn’t a decent person I know that’d throw a wake into a home, but mandating idle only because a few pier planks are going to get popped off - bureaucratic overreach. 

While these issues seem worlds apart and are generally suffered by different anglers in different areas of the state, they are actually one in the same. They provide confirmation and acceptance to those allowed to erode the public resources of our water bodies. While it may be a good thing for some with special interests, it is a glaring stain on the purity of the reputation of the Sportsman’s Paradise. 


Think these are still just anecdotal examples that won’t affect you?  Think again!  Especially with the recent ruling on Catahoula Lake, more and more private land owner and special interest groups, including groups out of state are choosing to impose “no trespassing” authority over water.  Recently while fishing a later than usual bass spawn on the Mississippi River in the Baton Rouge area, Sean Robbins, President of Louisiana Sportsman’s Coalition, encountered just such an issue.  “With the cooler and high waters the bass spawn was later this year and instead of spawning in the usual bar-pits, because of the extended high water, the bass were literally spawning right against the grass beds of the levee system.”  “While on a good bite in a river bend out of the current, my son and I were approached by someone claiming to be a landowner and told us we were not allowed to fish here.”  “Mind you we were literally in the Mississippi River.”  The landowner proceeded to produce a cell phone to notify authorities to lodge a trespassing claim.  Avoiding conflict Sean chose to leave but it raises the question that the banks of literally the most public and commercialized waterbody in the country is inaccessible to a fisherman?  Yet on any given day commercial barges lodge themselves along the very same banks, often anchoring to and destroying trees with not an eye batted.  To say a double standard exists is an understatement. 


While we all enjoy the resources we are blessed with, continued regulation and court rulings erode away the rights of not just the fisherman but the general tax paying public as a whole.  For instance, Catahoula Lake was actually created as a result of federal water control projects funded by taxpayers; yet is now used solely as “private property.”  This is an injustice to all who pay taxes.   


Please do your part by reaching out to your elected officials to let them know how you feel about matters that affect you.  Join or support conservation groups that seek to protect sportsman’s rights across our state, such as the Louisiana Sportsmen’s Coalition.  It’s not only your civic duty but should be a pillar supporting the sport we all love.  An upcoming June 2nd meeting of the Terrebone Parish Consolidated Government on the current Orange Grove closure will surely be widely attended by sportsmen looking to represent their interests.   


-Views in this article are of the author and not necessarily that of Bassin’ In The Boot. Legal discussion herein not considered legal advice or counsel. If you need assistance with a matter such as this seek professional counsel.

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Public notice for the June 2nd meeting of the Terrebone Parish Consolidated Government.

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