By Will Glade
Capital West News
SALT LAKE CITY — A Bear Lake debate took center stage Wednesday evening at a meeting of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.
HB140, a bill to amend current legislation, would allow unconventional launch sites and greater beach access at Bear Lake. Rep. R. Curt Webb, R-Logan, is the bill’s primary sponsor and was peppered with questions from the standing committee about why the current law should be amended.
“The exposed public lands have had a tradition of public use,” said Webb. “Until HB333 in 2013, those uses were pretty common. HB333 turned those uses on their head, and although those uses are still [evidenced] on the Idaho side, Utah’s traditional uses have been seriously curtailed.”
Currently, the law restricts beach access by banning vehicular travel on the beaches for all but beachfront private property owners who have permits to launch. Moreover, the law requires all forms of watercraft to have a launch permit, an attempt to keep Bear Lake free from the quagga mussel, a highly invasive and destructive species. HB140 would change many of those policies in an effort to make the lake more accessible to the general public.
“I guess you would have to be at Bear Lake year after year to see what a difference last year made,” said Webb. “My original discussion with the people at sovereign lands was: ‘give us time and we will work this out.’ And they probably could with the pressure we are putting on now, but fifty years from now it won’t be us sitting here. In fifty years from now, will we have crafted something that protects the ability to use the lake in its traditional manner, or will we leave in place a bill that allows them to do again what they did last year?”
Brian Cottam, Director of the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands also testified about the problems with the current law and the efforts to resolve those issues. “We have not had enough time to implement the current law,” Cottam said. “We are aggressively working towards finding that middle ground and managing the lake based upon the needs and the interests we’re hearing up there from the folks that are most impacted by these decisions.”
HB140 would change policies to make lake and beach access more readily available to the public, require launch permits only for motorized watercraft, and change laws regarding vehicular access to the lake front.
In its current state, the bill would allow all members of the public to obtain launch permits for their boats and other motorized watercraft. No permit will be required for non-motorized watercraft. Also, the bill would allow camping on all state lands for 15 days and the public to beach their motorized vehicles on the sovereign lands of all navigable lakes and rivers for three days.
Among the most significant changes is a proposal to open the beach to parallel travel, currently restricted except in areas designated by the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. Parallel travel is traveling along the lakeshore using motorized vehicles. Many of the local residents, especially beachfront property owners, are concerned with this because of the danger it creates for beach users, as well as the damage it causes to the beach and surrounding areas.
The committee hearing was packed with both supporters and opponents to the bill. Most of the opposition was due to the parallel travel provisions and associated safety concern.
John Spuhler, mayor of Garden City, said that Webb had failed to consult Garden City residents when collecting information and writing the bill. “I was disappointed, as I was when HB333 was discussed, that the local bodies were not included in the discussion until it got to this point,” Spuhler said.
According to Spuhler, there are many places for lake goers to access the beaches without having to parallel travel on the beach. He also addressed the dangers of eliminating the permit requirement for all watercraft as all are susceptible to the quagga muscle, not just the motorized water vehicles.
Following the meeting, a compromise was reached on the parallel travel portion of the bill. A updated version of the bill will restrict parallel travel to those who are launching watercraft, transporting disabled or immobile people to and from the beach, or transporting camping equipment to and from a campsite on state lands. The bill will also require a minimum 100 foot distance from the lake and ten miles per hour speed limit for all parallel travel.
The bill was given a favorable recommendation by the committee and will be heard on the House floor. “This is really what we are trying to say here: take an open attitude in your planning process and you can make a difference in how you manage the lake,” Webb said.