A contested fishing access point at Willow Bar on the Chetco River might be public land, according to a state official and a former owner of the property.
John Lilly of the Oregon Division of State Lands (DSL) said Wednesday that the ordinary high water line is not the only determining factor of what is private property and what is river bottom or public property.
Lilly said he visited the site last week, along with a land boundary expert hired by the DSL, Todd Confer of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), land owners Bill and Marie Hansen and their surveyor Shawn Kampmann.
Lilly said the DSL reviewed Kampmanns survey and agreed with where he placed the ordinary high water line in some places, but not in key areas near the ODFW fishing easement.
The point of contention is a gravel terrace that Kampmann marked as being above the ordinary high water line.
After the survey, Hansen used boulders to block the road that runs from the fishing easement across the terrace to the lower gravel bars that both sides acknowledge as state land.
We suspect the gravel bar may have grown from the river, said Lilly. It may be public property.
He said that depends on the dynamics of the river and what caused it to change over the years. He said the courts assume rivers move a lot.
To determine, said Lilly, one has to look back in the river record. We suspect part of the bar may have grown from the river.
He said the DSL is currently examining photos of the site from 1936 and 1939.
These are not easy matters to deal with, said Lilly.
He said it was in the best interest of all parties that the DSL be diligent.
Our long-term goal is to provide certainty of ownership, public and private.
He said the DSL is gathering materials. I cant speculate on how long it will take.
Meanwhile, he said, an attorney from the Oregon Department of Justice is talking with the Hansens attorney.
Were trying to establish where the ordinary high water line was and how it changed over time, said Lilly.
At the same time, one of the men who sold the fishing easement to the ODFW for $20,000 in 1979 told The Pilot that the contested gravel bar is a naturally-occurring deposit created by the river.
Roy Wagner said he and his father, Bob, owned the property under the corporate name Ore-Cal Mobile Estates, a satellite corporation of their main company, Chetco River Properties.
We sold the easement for one reason, said Wagner.
Elderly people needed access to the river. My fathers wish was that people have access to drive to the river.
Wagner said when ranchers along the river began closing off access, he and his father sold fishing access easements for Piling Hole and Willow Bar to the ODFW.
He said the Willow Bar easement was intended to open up three miles of the river to fishermen on foot and in vehicles.
Its one of the nicest strips of river to fish without being in a boat, said Wagner.
He said the Willow Bar access was intended to be just like the Piling Hole easement. He doesnt like the way the Hansens have tried to close it off to vehicle access.
I want to be fair about it, said Wagner. My Dads true wish was that it be a true access.
He said they used to have a gravel extraction permit for the site and took out 60,000 to 80,000 cubic yards a year.
He said what is now the Hansens property was originally bottom ground composed of low-lying gravel bars. Most of it was below the high water line.
Wagner said a pond and low-lying pasture sat where the Hansens home now stands.
The Wagners planned to build a campground on the property and built a 25-foot-high abutment to keep the river out.
Wagner said they also filled the pond and pasture with 60,000 cubic yards of gravel and built a myrtlewood mill near where the Hansens home now sits.
He said the abutment did not extend to the fishing easement and no fill was ever placed there.
He also said they never extracted gravel at the head of the bar near the easement.
Wagner said the terrace at the easement is a naturally-occurring gravel bar built up by the river. He said the river slows at that point and deposits gravel there every year.
He said low rainfall and river flow has resulted in less gravel being deposited at the site in recent years.
Wagner said old maps and drawings still exist that will back up what he said about the gravel bar.
Given current laws that say the river bottom of navigable rivers is public property, Wagner estimated that about half of the Hansens' property may actually be owned by the state.
He said he never experienced the kind of problems the Hansens are having, such as garbage being left on or near their property.
He said he used to let people drive down to the river near where the Hansens later built their home.
Though the myrtlewood mill was not locked, he said, no one ever disturbed it. He said people used to pick up garbage they found by the river and pack it out.
Wagner now lives in Coos Bay and works in Eugene, but still owns a ranch on Gardner Ridge. He said he worked for 27 years in Brookings.