Washington homeowner angry at river users

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2003

ORIENT, Wash. (AP) People who float the Kettle River in the summer are coming into conflict with landowners like Harold Honeycutt, who uses firearms to keep what he calls trespassers off his land.

''These floaters have been threatening me for years,'' said Honeycutt, a 72-year-old former tavern owner. ''But I don't plan to cut and run. I think you ought to stand and fight.''

Armed with a .38-caliber revolver and a 1925 legal ruling, Honeycutt patrols a rocky shore on a remote stretch of the Kettle River, six miles south of the Canadian border in northeastern Washington.

Other nearby property owners have also tried to stop the canoeists, kayakers and others who float the 180-mile long river.

According to Ferry County officials, the landowners have shot over canoes, chased kayakers down the river and attempted to charge boaters millions of dollars in fines.

Honeycutt said boaters have left trash on the riverbank, cursed at him and even fired shots at him.

''I've had to enforce the law,'' Honeycutt told the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane. ''I'll put a stop to it, by the gun or by the knuckle.''

But on Friday, the county prosecutor released a letter contending the river is public up to the high water mark, the highest point the river reaches, typically during spring runoff. Under Washington law, the public owns the water running through river and stream beds.

''If these gentlemen get their way,'' he said in a phone interview on Friday, ''a significant public resource is going to be lost.''

Honeycutt, who bought his land 15 years ago, vowed to mount a legal challenge.

''Nothing's going to change,'' he said. ''If they want to arrest me, that's fine. But nobody comes through here.''

Honeycutt and others point to a 1925 ruling that gave landowners on the Kettle uncommon control, permitting them to ban floaters from using the water.

Von Sauer said he's uncovered numerous factual errors in that case, which declared the river unnavigable. At the time of the ruling, unnavigable rivers were presumed to have little economic or public value.

Records of the ruling show that the judge had little firsthand knowledge of the river, which runs back and forth across the Canadian border before emptying into Lake Roosevelt, von Sauer said.

The fact that people can canoe, raft and float the river is evidence enough that it is navigable, he said.

While some landowners fight what they see as an erosion of property rights, others in the region contend the river brings tourists and their dollars into the area. During the summer, hundreds of floaters dot the river.

They are not welcome at the home of Doug Barnes, who owns a stretch of land along the river near Curlew. Barnes, who has strung two hangman's nooses from a cross in front of his property, disputes that the river is navigable.

Last summer, Barnes ran an ad in the Republic News-Miner newspaper warning that floaters will be treated as intruders who ''jeopardize the life of the owner(s) of this property.''

Several boaters have filed complaints about property owners.

On the July 4th weekend, a man chased Chris Haralam and other canoeists down the river.

''It was unnerving,'' Haralam said. ''I could just hear this screaming. If I had dumped, it would have been a chilly reception on the shore.''

One group alleged Honeycutt fired a rifle shot over their heads, a charge he denied.

''I've heard that a couple guys upstream kind of fired a warning shot over some floaters,'' he said. ''I'm not going to say I did.''

Honeycutt said that four or five times a day, he leaves the confines of his garage, decorated with Confederate and U.S. flags and anti-immigration literature, to chase off boaters.

''People think I'm crazy trying to keep them out of my hair,'' he said. ''Once in a while, they just about make me crazy.''

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