Locals and tourists have flocked to Lake Martin for more than 50 years to explore the swamp and experience its wildlife through hiking, paddling, photographing and fishing.

But the landscape around the rural lake, which is situated between Lafayette and Breaux Bridge in St. Martin Parish, has changed in recent years.

A boardwalk through the swampy landscape on the southwestern shore has broken boards and splintered railings. Another boardwalk is closed off completely because it's in such disrepair. 

Across the lake on the northeastern shore, fencing and ropes display signage such as "keep out" and "no trespassing." Even parts of the navigable waterway are roped off with signs meant to deter people. A swamp tour business with bright flags, boats and trailers stands out in the natural setting.

The business has been at the center of litigation and public criticism in recent years.

Parish leaders and outdoor enthusiasts argued that the business was blocking public access to the lake and could damage the environment by operating on the shore. But a judge ruled in favor of the business owner because he obtained the necessary permits through the parish and made substantial investments into the business.

Elected officials are appealing the recent court ruling. As the legal process drags on, there is one thing everyone can agree on: 

There needs to be clarity on the lake's boundaries, who is responsible for its upkeep and the public's right to access it.

A public lake surrounded by private land

Lake Martin is a state-owned body of water meant for public use.

The problem is all of the land — and even the water — at the lake's borders is privately owned. Even the public boat ramp is on private property.

That's because Lake Martin didn't exist until 1950 legislation expanded an existing body of water known as Lake LaPointe onto private properties that once surrounded the smaller lake. The legislation created the St. Martin-Lafayette Game and Fish Preserve and a commission overseen by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries to acquire properties and construct a levee around the new, larger lake.

Private properties that were once only occasionally flooded by the 200-acre Lake LaPointe became the water bottom of the new 800-acre Lake Martin, which was contained by a 5-mile levee.

The public could access Lake Martin through any property on the water side of the levee because of servitude agreements that granted the state and public access to the privately owned land for upkeep purposes and recreational use.

In the early 1960s, a public boat launch was constructed on private property through a 25-year lease agreement between the commission and a landowner. The agreement allowed for a one-time, 25-year lease renewal.

But in 1982, several game and fish commissions, including the St. Martin-Lafayette Game and Fish Commission that oversees Lake Martin, were abolished and their responsibilities were transferred to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.

That's when things got complicated.

'Everything got swampy'

It is unclear if abolishing the game and fish commission changed the servitude rights on private property at Lake Martin.

Outdoor enthusiasts and local leaders argue the St. Martin-Lafayette Game and Fish Preserve still exists — even if it is managed by a state agency instead of a commission — and therefore the servitude rights remain in place at Lake Martin. State officials disagree, especially after a judge ruled in favor of someone whose business is located where servitude rights are in question.

"When the commission dissolved, everything got swampy," said Mary Lynn Chauffe, a property owner who started a nonprofit called Friends of Lake Martin. "It's like the wild, wild west out here. It's self-governed. The old-timers aren't around anymore, and people are confused. They kind of do what they want to do."

Today, about half of the land surrounding the original 200-acre lake is owned by individual property owners. The rest is owned by a private nonprofit called The Nature Conservancy, which is primarily concerned with preserving the land but has also constructed public boardwalks and a visitor center at Lake Martin.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries owns the central 200 acres of the lake and maintains the water bottom of the entire 800-acre water body.

St. Martin Parish maintains Rookery Road, a gravel path along the lake's levee, and the grass along the levee. Neither the parish president nor a Lafayette representative for the state agency knew of a written agreement for road and landscaping maintenance but said an informal agreement has been in place for years.

The public boat launch on private property remains in use, although neither the state nor parish have a lease agreement with the property owner and neither agency is actively maintaining the ramp.

"Lake Martin was always public, and the public had access at all times and still does," said Jody David, a biologist manager for inland fisheries based in the Lafayette office of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Access is the key to any water body."

But access to the lake has become increasingly difficult in recent months.

Private property owners say they're roping off their land and waterways to protect themselves from liability. They would be protected if the servitude remains in place because they are allowing others to use their property for recreational purposes, according to a 1990s Louisiana attorney general opinion. It's unclear if that protection for private landowners is still in effect, and even if it is, landowners say they worry they could be held liable if a commercial boat incident happened on their property.

"Everything is really up in the air right now because of the lawsuit," said St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars. "There's a lot of confusion right now."

'The public needs to know, even if it is a complicated picture'

Everyone agrees the public should have access to Lake Martin. It's the primary reason the water body was created.

But nobody seems to know if the public can access the lake without violating the rights of private property owners.

"Lake Martin is an extremely important resource for our community that's facing some challenges," said William deGravelles, stewardship manager for the Louisiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy. "The public needs to know, even if it's a complicated picture."

As of now, the public can access Lake Martin through the public boat ramp even though it's on private property. 

The conservancy also recently created a makeshift kayak and canoe launch on its property because of the confusion surrounding private land ownership around Lake Martin. The launch is about 1/4 mile north of Rookery Road, but parking can be an issue because of limited space at the end of the road.

Those interested in hiking through the wildlife preserve can use a 1/4 mile boardwalk on the southwestern shore of the lake that is maintained by the conservancy. Another boardwalk maintained by the nonprofit is closed because of the expense involved in maintaining it.

Bryan Champagne, the business owner at the center of the litigation, said even though he has roped off the area around Champagne's Swamp Tours, the public is welcome to fish or boat from the property if they check in at the business first.

"Just because it says 'keep out' doesn't mean stay out completely," Champagne said. "We just want to know who's on the property."

But even though the court ruled in favor of Champagne, parish leaders and outdoor enthusiasts continue to question how anyone can claim ownership over navigable water in the lake, even if it is over private property.

"What is Lake Martin?" Cedars asked. "That's the real question. What are its boundaries?"


Follow Megan Wyatt on Twitter, @MeganWyattACA.