Ted Birdseye, whose family has had property along the Rogue River for more than 150 years, makes a point at a navigability study hearing Wednesday. Birdseye said the study was unnecessary because he and most other landowners haven’t had clashes with fishermen, rafters or other river users who share the banks. - Jim Craven

Who owns the riverbanks?

Critics and supporters of a study about whether an 89-mile stretch of the Rogue River is navigable — and therefore should be public — stepped up to talk about fears of losing their property or their rights to fish and boat.

Hundreds gathered Wednesday in a Medford hotel conference room to state their views.

A draft of the Rogue River Navigability Study on the river channel from Lost Creek Dam to Grave Creek was released last fall, and the State Land Board is set to make a decision this year, perhaps as early as June, officials said.

The Josephine County District Attorney's Office asked for a ruling in 1997 to help clarify jurisdiction in disputes between property owners and river users.

"The land board is keenly aware that this is controversial and strongly felt by both sides," said Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who serves on the board along with Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and Treasurer Randall Edwards. He assured those who spoke Wednesday that the state hasn't reached any conclusion yet and will consider all the testimony gathered at the hearing and in writing.

The board called on 46 people who signed up to testify at a public hearing Wednesday at the Ramada-Medford and Convention Center on Biddle Road.

Most told the board the study doesn't have the evidence to prove the section of the Rogue meets federal navigability standards, which would have protected the river since Oregon became a state in 1859, and asked the board not to declare the river publicly owned. A show of hands indicated that many who didn't speak also disagreed with the study.

A handful also spoke up to say the study had made its case and the state should declare public ownership.

Cris Caldwell, who owns a 200-acre riverside ranch on Highway 234, said the navigability designation and a declaration to make the river's historic channel public would cause more problems than it would solve. He said a portion of his ranch is in the historic channel and he would sue to protect his property right. He also contested the requirement that, if the river is declared public, he would have to pay fees and get permits for his irrigation pump, which is now on his property.

"This hits us right in the heart, what you are doing," he said.

Ted Birdseye, a descendent of a pioneer family who filed a Donation Land Claim on property along the river in 1853, said his great-great-grandfather was a packer who would have used the river to move goods if it was navigable, but it wasn't.

He noted the irony in winning state heritage farm awards, but potentially losing part of the family farmland to the state in this river decision.

Birdseye said the study was unnecessary and a waste of time because he and most other landowners haven't had clashes with fishermen, rafters or other river users who share the banks.

Tom Harrison, a real estate broker from White City who has lived along the river and marketed rural properties, said the current public easement that gives recreational river users access to flowing water makes sense for property owners and those fishing and floating on the Rogue. Through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of State Lands, the state already has authority along the river and local law enforcement is also available to assist.

He worried that the navigability designation could cloud deeds, discourage buyers and might affect market values.

Will and Kathryn Hardy said they bought three acres in Shady Cove in 1994 for their retirement and have just learned that the river once meandered through their property. They worry that declaring the historic channel public will result in state ownership of their home and property, or at least confusion over ownership.

"This will place a cloud on the title so we can't get money we need for retirement," Kathryn Hardy said. "It will cause extreme hardship."

State officials have said they would negotiate with property owners to obtain titles to the new channel.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has sent a letter opposing the navigability study in part because of such negative, unintended consequences, said Kelly Madding, the county's director of economic development, who spoke Wednesday to reiterate the county's concerns.

"I sympathize with all of you with riverfront property, for which you paid dearly," Central Point fisherman Jim Jones said, but he said he wants to ensure he and others can continue to access the river without conflict.

"I don't care how you solve it," he said. "I just want to be able to wade and fish in the river. If I floated in and I'm standing in three inches of water, I don't want some guy with a shotgun telling me to get off his property."

Heather McNeill, a founding board member of Common Waters of Oregon, said she took the day off work as manager of an architect's office in Bend to come show that there is a broad and substantial interest in the Rogue's navigability decision. The act declaring all rivers that were navigable when Oregon became a state to be public was meant to protect commerce and many small businesses that depend on rivers, she said. She urged the state board to make a decision soon, as federal courts could force a decision if the state doesn't act.

Another supporter of the navigability designation, John Bullock of Ashland, said he floats on a pontoon and lands on banks and gravel bars to fly-fish with a two-handed spey rod.

"I believe this is a natural right of every Oregonian to use banks and gravel bars," he said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail

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