Lawmakers reject effort to make Louisiana coastal waters public

More signs and fences are going up in Louisiana's coastal waters. Landowners are claiming private ownership of waters formerly considered public.

Every year, thousands of people take to Louisiana waterways to enjoy hunting, fishing, and boating. Recently this kind of recreation has become more difficult because of the rapidly changing landscape of our coast and complex laws that address the ownership of, and public access to, Louisiana waterways.

In 2018, legislation was introduced that would have expanded public navigation access to running waters that are navigable by registered motorboats or that pass over privately owned water bottoms subject to the ebb and flow of tide of the Gulf of Mexico. That legislation, House Bill 391, was rejected by a narrow vote in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

For the past 18 months, a task force composed of landowners, state representatives, state legislators, environmentalists, lawyers, recreational sportsmen, and others have been working to come up with solutions. I served on this task force as the representative of the Louisiana State Law Institute. The report of the Public Recreation Access Task Force, published Friday, Jan. 31, can be found at http://www.dnr.louisiana.gov/index.cfm/page/1576.

The task force report is an important resource. First, it explains how the current controversy evolved and the complex property and constitutional laws that address who owns — and who has access to — coastal land and waterways in Louisiana.

Next, the report details how Louisiana law governing places such as private canals and land that once lay beneath nonnavigable water bodies but is now submerged beneath the gulf or other navigable water bodies has caused conflict between private landowners, the state, and those interested in recreational access. It also reveals how these conflicts have hurt the recreational sporting economy.

Finally, the task force report offers seven discrete pathways for the Legislature and state officials to consider. These pathways fall into two broad baskets.

Lawmakers reject effort to make Louisiana coastal waters public

One set of pathways utilize voluntary agreements — swaps, in effect — between private landowners and the state, or between private landowners, the state, and nonprofit third parties like land trusts. These could utilize permanent boundary settlements between the state and landowners and a grant of permanent recreational access rights. Others could involve donations to the state or nonprofit third parties and reservations of mineral rights.

The other pathways move in different directions such as linking landowner-friendly property tax treatment for marshland to a grant of recreational access, requiring landowners to post their nonnavigable water bottoms as private in order to exclude the public, or establishing a right of responsible recreational access on all waterways in Louisiana affected by the ebb and flow of the tide.

Regardless of viewpoint, anyone interested in recreational access to Louisiana waterways should read the Public Recreation Access Task Force report, and encourage their state legislators to study it too, as the pathways it charts may emerge as bills in the Louisiana Legislature this spring.

John A. Lovett

professor, Loyola University College of Law

New Orleans