The Wild Side: Comite battle on the horizon

A battle royale is brewing among landowners along the Comite River about who and how anyone can use this mostly East Baton Rouge waterway, or in this case a roadway.

During Tuesday’s Wildlife and Fisheries Commission monthly meeting, as many as 40 folks turned out to hear the commission’s discussion about increased ATV use inside the bed of the river, and 18 presented their arguments.

Their testimony showed the issue has almost as many twists and turns as this river.

A handful of landowners said they have used the riverbed for years to travel between homesteads of family and friends, and they didn’t want that to go away. It was never stated how they traveled, except the inference was they used wheeled vehicles more than boats.

Two men said they represented mud-riding groups which, from all appearances, allows its members to show up with everything from off-road-use-only four-wheelers all the way up to jacked-up, oversized-tires trucks.

Other landowners said trespassing incidents are on the rise, that an increasing number of riders pose an almost constant summertime threat to them using the river, and riders leave litter.

Two men, apparently conservationists, said ATV rides are degrading the river.

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission have been asked to tackle trespass issues at least four times during the past 25 years.

Each time, the LDWF and the LWFC have been told that neither has control in those disputes, that trespassing is a civil issue that can lead to criminal charges, and is a matter for the local sheriff.

The most recent trespassing issue focused on hunting rights, and the State Legislature handled that by proscribing how a landowner must post land, and told folks to consider all lands in the state to be privately owned unless marked otherwise.

This next step in the Comite River issue will be to determine who owns the river. Although not final, the early returns is that landowners own to the middle of the river.

Because the Comite is part of the state’s Scenic Rivers Program, the issue the commission needs to tackle is whether ATV riding along and through the river and its sandbars, and access to the river itself puts the river in peril.

LDWF managers proposed changes to ban ATV use inside the riverbed and within 100 feet on both sides of the Comite and all rivers in the program.

Of the 18 who spoke up Tuesday, 11 were against the move and seven wanted the new restriction.

The LWFC tabled a move to change the regulations, but with the anger building between the two factions, the Comite River issue is sure to resurface in the near future.

When it does, we can be sure where, when, how and why we use the scenic waterways in our state will grow from a local problem to a statewide discussion. Maybe it’s time it did.