An 89-mile stretch of the Rogue River is owned by the public, the State Land Board ruled Tuesday, raising the ire of many Jackson County landowners along the waterway.
"The whole thing is solving a problem that never existed," said Roger King, president of Save Our Legacy, a local group representing some 90 property owners along the river who plan to file a lawsuit blocking the state action.
"There is no problem to be fixed," King said. The Shady Cove resident said everyone has known for more than 150 years that the river is open to the public.
The decision affirms state ownership of the river channel and the banks up to the ordinary high water marks, but not to areas that flood.
Making the banks public land allows rafters, anglers and other boaters to pull off the river without being accused of trespassing on private property, said Louise Solliday, director of the Department of State Lands.
The three-member Land Board adopted the Final Rogue River Navigability Study, which finds the state has owned the beds and banks since statehood. The river has changed course many times in some stretches during the past 150 years, so there could be some title disputes with landowners.
The Land Board includes Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and state Treasurer Randall Edwards.
More than 3,000 property owners will receive notification over the next few weeks that the state is asserting its claim over the river from Grave Creek in Josephine County to Lost Creek Dam in Jackson County, Solliday said.
"This will clarify that the state is the owner, and public has the right to use the river," she said.
She said the state's action could be stalled if property owners challenge the decision with the state Court of Appeals.
State lands officials based their findings on an act by the U.S. Congress that brought Oregon into the Union in 1859. The act declares the state's navigable waterways free to all inhabitants of the country.
The state is relying on maps produced in the 1850s to determine the original course of the river, which will be used to establish state ownership. It is also relying on historical documents to show the Rogue has been a river that is considered "navigable" under federal standards.
The navigability study was prompted by complaints from the Josephine County District Attorney's Office over difficulties in determining jurisdiction in disputes between riverfront property owners and river users.
Solliday said the state will not use eminent domain, but will negotiate with property owners to obtain quitclaim deeds for disputed lands. The state also will issue a quitclaim deed back to landowners for areas where the river no longer flows over a particular property, she said.
Property owners will have an incentive to settle with the state because there would be a cloud over the title if the land were offered for sale without a clearly defined title, said Solliday.
She said some property owners might think they own to the middle of the river or to the far bank, but she suggested they check their title report carefully because they will find that is not correct.
The state has been sued over other navigability studies on other rivers, but ultimately the courts have ruled in its favor, she said.
King said the Save Our Legacy organization has received money from 80 to 90 landowners that could be used for legal action to block the state. He said the group doesn't dispute that all Oregon rivers are navigable and open to the public. Rather, they are protesting the state's disruptive plan to take away their land because the river has changed course over the years.
King said he would likely have to get his own land surveyed because the river channel has meandered, and a neighbor across the river appears to own the land across the width of the channel right up to King's river bank.
Save Our Legacy is preparing its own management plan for the Rogue River that it will be presenting to counties in the next two weeks, said King.
"The idea is to form a volunteer commission of people who will work on the management of this river," he said. "They will see if we can create more access for fishermen to get to the river and fish."
He said his organization also will work with lawmakers to come up with legislation that would address the problems of state ownership of the river without prompting conflicts over land ownership.
Danny Ingledew of Medford was fishing on the Rogue Tuesday near Dodge Bridge, downstream from Shady Cove, but was having no luck catching the salmon that were occasionally jumping out of the water.
Ingledew said he didn't agree with the state's decision.
"Why change it now?" he said.
People have been using the river for years, and there has been no question about access, said the 45-year-old cabinet maker.
However, he said, "I also don't agree that you own out to the middle of the river."
He said disputes pop up from time to time, particularly during the summer when rafters leave their trash along the banks.
"If people respected other people's property it would not be such an issue," he said.
Ingledew said property owners also need to be aware that not all fisherman are trespassing.
"I've pulled over on the banks and gotten yelled at," he said.
Ingledew's brother, Paul, also objected to the state taking away land.
"To me it just ties in with the state encroaching on everybody's property rights," said the 40-year-old Medford contractor.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.