Supreme Court sinks public access case

WASHINGTON — In October, the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling in a Louisiana case that denies recreational access to what was once considered public water.

"We have now gone from a Sportsman's Paradise to a sportsman's nightmare," pro bono attorney Paul Hurd of Monroe, La., told BASS Times.

 "It's a good reason to be a citizen of Montana."

 The case, Normal Parm Jr., et al, v. Mark Shumate, began in 1996 after several bass fishermen were repeatedly arrested and charged with trespassing for floating from the Mississippi River channel over land owned by a Louisiana corporation during the high waters of spring.

 The defendants lost repeated attempts in state courts and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to have the arrests deemed unlawful under the federal Commerce Law.

 The recent decision by the nation's highest court was not unexpected, but it still came as a disappointment to those involved.

 "The [lower courts] ruled that the only right guaranteed under federal law is for commercial activity," Hurd said. "I thought [the original ruling] was an error of historic proportions."

 The ruling is now "the law of the land" in the federal Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

 Following the ruling, Louisiana landowners may now be emboldened to close off waters traditionally open to public fishing.

 "The reason nobody has been arrested is that everybody was waiting to see if there was a federal right to use that water," Hurd said. "Now your public water ends at the low-water mark."

 Former Louisiana B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Conservation Director Will Courtney said how much water will be closed to the public depends on the aggressiveness of private landowners.

 "It potentially could have a tremendous impact on what we do, but I don't think you're going to see a huge influx of posted signs," Courtney said. "To be honest, everything that's private probably has been posted already.

 "It's just business as usual in Louisiana," Courtney added.

 Hurd said the Supreme Court's refusal to take up the case sets up a potential domino effect outside of Louisiana because many state laws that currently protect public access were predicated on an "assumed" federal right.

 "We're now going to find out if Mississippi law and Texas law, which do say there is a right to access these waters, will hold up," Hurd continued.

 "What's going to happen when the fundamental federal law they thought existed does not exist? We're going to find out if the Fifth Circuit blew up state law."

 BASS Conservation Director Chris Horton said it remains to be seen just how the situation plays out from state to state.

 "It's really the only precedent out there," Horton said. "The long-range effect is hard to see: It depends on how many landowners decide to push the issue." 


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