An open letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell
National Organization for Rivers
212 West Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard ● Colorado Springs, Colorado 80906
October 7, 2013
Dear President Obama and Secretary Jewell:
Your administration has erected a barricade, manned by armed rangers, preventing the public from getting to the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, which is the only access point for navigating through the Grand Canyon.
This barricade is unlawful, and the current government funding dispute does not make it lawful. The first act of the first Congress of the United States declared that the rivers of our nation must remain “forever free” to public navigation.(1) Later Congress again confirmed that rivers “shall be deemed to be and remain public highways.”(2) Early in our nation’s history the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that rivers are “held in trust for the public” and cannot be closed to navigation.(3) The Court later confirmed that the government is the “guardian” of rivers, so that “free navigation is secured,”(4) and that government authority on navigable waters is subject to the public’s “paramount right of navigation.”(5) Later the Court again confirmed that government authority on rivers is “subject to the rights which the public have in the navigation of such waters.”(6) In its most recent decision regarding public rights on rivers, the Court specifically confirmed that the Department of the Interior cannot close public access to rivers flowing through federal lands.(7)
There is no exception in the law for funding disputes. Likewise, the fact that funding may be forthcoming within the next few days does not make the barricade lawful today. The public has firm legal rights to get to the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry today, not just at some undetermined future time. Public rights to access navigable rivers are not dependent on resolution of funding disputes.
It is obvious that it is costing money to enforce the barricade with armed rangers, while it would not cost anything to send the rangers home. Therefore the claim that the barricade is necessary due to lack of funding is absurd.
In summary, the barricade is illegal. Your administration is not above the law. Consequently, you are quickly losing the trust and support of millions of Americans who are aware of this illegal barricade. The law requires you to order the rangers to step aside and allow the public to get to the river. We urge you to comply immediately.
Executive Director, National Organization for Rivers.
(1) “Forever free:” Northwest Ordinance of 1787,
reenacted August 7, 1789, chapter 8, 1 Stat. 50.
(2) “Be and remain public highways:”
Act of May 18, 1796, chapter 29, section 9, 1 Stat. 464.
(3) “Held as a public trust:” Martin v. Waddell,
41 U.S. 367 (1842); Illinois Central v. Illinois,
146 U.S. 387 (1892).
(4) “Guardians” of rivers: Pollard v. Hagan,
44 U.S. 212 (1845).
(5) “Paramount right of navigation:” Weber v. Board of Harbor Commissioners,
85 U.S. 57 (1873).
(6) “Subject to the rights which the public have:” Scranton v. Wheeler,
179 U.S. 141 (1900).
(7) Department of the Interior cannot close public access to rivers: Montana v. United States,
450 U.S. 544 (1981).