Most anglers in Virginia are all too familiar with the story of the Jackson River and the infamous King's Grant controversy. In the early 80s, the Jackson River was flooded to create Lake Moomaw, just outside of Covington, Virginia. Bottom releases of water from the lake created a cold water trout fishery below Gathright Dam, where a warm water fishery had existed previously. This new trout fishery predictably increased pressure on the river and tensions between landowners and recreational users ensued. Then, in the mid 90s, a group of landowners on the Jackson sued a fishing guide in an effort to keep him from fishing on their stretch of the river. These landowners produced evidence of a 1750 grant from King George II that conveyed property on both sides of the river and the exclusive privileges of fishing, hunting, hawking and fowling. The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court and the court, in its infinite wisdom, ruled in favor of the landowners, although the Jackson had previously been ruled a navigable river. According to state law, the stream bed of a navigable river cannot be privately owned and is held by the state for its use by the public. In this case, the King's Grant superseded state law.
The Jackson River at Indian Draft:
The area affected by the decision was a relatively short stretch of river below the dam and the rest of the river remained open to public use. Anglers were free to fish in the river, float and wade on the stream bed, as long as they remained below the high water mark. The state provided public access points as well as literature and signage that designated the areas open to public use and those that were off limits. Things went along fine until last year when another group of anglers were sued for civil trespass.
It seems that a developer purchased a large chunk of land on the Jackson River and had begun selling smaller plots. Part of the sales pitch for these plots of land was that they came with private, exclusive use of the river. Signs started appearing, where none had been before, proclaiming that wading and fishing was prohibited. In some cases, these new signs were directly across river from the public access points and signs put up by the state that said fishing was allowed. The developer has now sued a group of anglers for doing something that the state says they were allowed to do. Confused yet?
It seems pretty clear to me that the developer, who is very well funded, has a plan to bully his way into gaining his private river. He is claiming that he has the same type of King's Grant possessed by the landowners in the original case. To date, this evidence has not been produced and it is highly doubtful that it even exists. By suing these anglers, who cannot afford his type of justice, he's hoping that they will not be able to afford to fight him in court and just go away. He'll win his case and get his private river.
A wild, Jackson River Rainbow:
Obviously, this would set a dangerous precedent that could endanger many of our public waterways. Imagine not being able to float or fish on the James, the Shenandoah or any of our favorite rivers. The same thing could happen on those rivers or any other river in the country. This isn't just a Virginia issue, it's a national issue. The public can't sit back and let this one rich developer buy this case because he picked on people who couldn't afford to fight him for the long haul. The anglers that were sued have been fighting this case, but are at their financial limits and need our help.
So, how can you help? Visit the Virginia Rivers Defense Fund at www.virginiariversdefensefund.org and make a donation to help these guys out. Anything helps - it doesn't have to be a lot of money, but if we all contribute we can do our part to protect our right to use our public rivers.