Public waters without public access

  • The Isaac Frye Highway entrance to Wilton’s Garwin Falls is off-limits after being marked “No Trespassing” by the property owners. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/30/2021 4:41:12 PM

New Hampshire has 928 public lakes and ponds throughout the state, in addition to public rivers and tidal areas. However, anyone following the oft-contentious discussions of public access to Contoocook Lake in Jaffrey, the now-private “horseshoe” in Wilton, Dublin Lake in Dublin, or Silver Lake in Harrisville in recent years will tell you that just because a body of water is publicly owned, access to it may not be so straightforward.

New Hampshire’s public trust doctrine, which protects public access to certain resources like water, air, and shoreland, has legal precedent dating back to ancient Rome, according to a discussion paper produced by the state’s Lakes Management Advisory Committee. By law, all New Hampshire’s lakes and ponds greater than ten acres, plus navigable rivers and tidal waters are held in public trust “for the use and benefit of the state,” according to the document.

However, not all public waters have public access, and it can be difficult to suss out what activities are allowed at those that do, state Public Water Access Advisory Board Chair Thomas Quarles said. “There are many, many different categories of public access,” he said, from private property that a landowner opens for public use, to town-owned accesses, to those maintained by any number of state agencies including Fish and Game, DNCR, DOT, and DES.

Each type of access has its own rules and restrictions, Quarles said. Fish and Game-maintained boat launches don’t allow swimming, for example, and conditions can vary widely at older “Roads to Public Waters” accesses: the state developed around 200 between the 1940s and 1970s before turning them over to local municipalities, Quarles said. While some towns maintained boat launches and beaches on those sites, others let the accesses overgrow to the point that motorboat trailers can no longer pass, he said. Many state parks have swimming opportunities, he said.

How do you find out which accesses allow what? Map databases that list boat ramps, carry-in boat launches, and shoreline fishing areas on the Fish and Game website are currently undergoing updates, although there’s no easy way to tease out which listed accesses allow swimming, Quarles said. “Clark’s New Hampshire Fishing Guide” by Gary L. Clark details the access status for more than 450 lakes, ponds, and rivers, he said, and updated editions are available at many area sporting goods stores. Finally, Fish and Game Boat Access Program coordinator Garret Graaskamp fields questions about boat access sites, he said.

Preserving public access

Public access to waterways is as important as access to any public land, Quarles said. “People would not stand for it if state parks couldn’t be used for camping and hunting,” he said.

“It’s our legacy,” Wilton Conservation Commission Chair Bart Hunter said. “It’s what we have as a state. Waterways should be open to everybody.”

Statewide, the greatest threats to public water body access are recreational pressure and private landowners who attempt to restrict or prevent public access to a nearby public site, Quarles said. The Public Water Access Advisory Board’s mission is to advise on public water access issues, he said, and they’ve recently weighed in on access disputes at Dublin Lake and Silver Lake, he said. But, they’re an advisory board. “We can tell [towns] what they should be doing and what the law requires, but they are not bound by our opinions and analysis,” he said.

Further state funding for public access acquisitions or parking area improvements could diffuse certain conflicts, such as the frequently crowded Pumpelly Trailhead area in Dublin, he said.

To be clear: private property is off-limits to the general public, even for accessing public bodies of water. “The water and bottoms of large lakes are publicly owned, but we cannot force private landowners to allow the public to access their lake across their property,” Lakes Management Advisory Committee Rivers and Lakes Program Manager Tracie Sales said.

However, the LMAC works to maintain public access around lakes with limited public shoreline, she said. When state-owned shorefront land is proposed for lease or sale, the LMAC advocates for the state to keep parcels that would be good for public access, she said.

Furthermore, if boaters can lawfully put on and take out upstream or downstream of a desired lake that’s hemmed in by private property, they’re allowed to float on that lake, Sales said.

Good stewardship

“Public trust” implies the public has certain responsibilities to uphold, too. It’s important to be a good citizen and conduct yourself safely while visiting public lakes and rivers, Hunter said. That can mean cleaning your boat to prevent the spread of invasive species and not using lead lures, which can sicken wildlife. “Don’t walk by the trash barrel and drop a six pack of empties on the ground next to it,” he said. Be safe as well: swim within your ability level, bring and wear personal flotation devices, and stay away from dams, he said. 

Public use is a balancing act, Sales said: although the people who visit or live on a lake are typically more interested in protecting it, high visitation rates last year posed its own conservation threats. “They were being loved to death,” Sales said of some lakes and rivers. “We had so many people visiting, which is great,” she said, but with them came an uptick in discarded trash, and accelerated bank erosion from heavy foot traffic and wakes.

How to improve access

Generally, public access is established based on public interest, and public interest is biased toward the state’s larger public waters, Quarles said. Some lakes lack certain kinds of public access simply because nobody’s asked for it, he said.

Other public access sites that originally accommodated a boat launch have gone unmaintained, and the overseeing towns lack the funds or initiative to improve them, he said. “Figure out what the access opportunities are on the water bodies (you) want to get on,” Quarles said. Armed with that information, local residents can drum up public motivation, encourage the Select Board, and draft a warrant article to make the necessary changes, he said.




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