Last Monday, November 9, Don Thomas was headed out his backdoor in Lewistown, Montana, for some whitetail deer bowhunting when his phone rang.
On the line was Matt Young, executive editor at Ducks Unlimited Magazine, the member publication for the vaunted waterfowl conservation group. Thomas, a physician-turned-journalist, served as the magazine’s field editor, and over the years he’d attended more Ducks Unlimited banquets and volunteer events than he could count. He’d also written a back page column since 2001.
But no longer. Young was calling with some stunning news: Effective immediately, Thomas was fired.
The reason had nothing to do with Ducks Unlimited Magazine. Instead, Thomas was losing his position over an article he’d written for another publication, Outside Bozeman. The offending story had detailed the saga of James Cox Kennedy, a billionaire who’d fought for years to block public access to the Ruby River where it passed through his ranch. Thomas’ article wasn't impartial — it called Kennedy a “selfish man” with ethical shortcomings, though it did nod to his conservation contributions — but the facts were indisputable. “I think it’s within journalistic license to call someone selfish and arrogant when they’re clearly being selfish and arrogant,” Thomas says.
Unbeknownst to Thomas, however, Kennedy was a major Ducks Unlimited donor and former board member. Now the group’s current board, Young said, was in an uproar. “We simply cannot condone this type of vitriol directed by one of our contributing editors toward a dedicated DU volunteer, who is among the nation's most ardent and active waterfowl conservationists,” Young told Thomas in a follow-up email. (Ducks Unlimited denies Kennedy had a role in Thomas' firing.)
After Thomas recovered from his shock, he wrote a quick email to friends and editors, which was duly posted on a few outdoors websites. Then the Associated Press picked up the story, and the tale went viral. Ducks Unlimited's rank and file denounced the decision on sportsmen’s blogs and threatened to cancel memberships. Public access represents a core value of the conservation-minded hunters who comprise Ducks Unlimited’s constituency. That D.U. was siding with the billionaire seemed, to many, a betrayal.
“The issue is not just the dismissal of Don Thomas — it’s that D.U. took an unwarranted action that’s contrary to the interests of its grassroots,” says Glenn Elison, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and longtime Ducks Unlimited member. “The issue is that D.U. is not vocally supporting public access. That sends a message.”
In Montana, access to public lands and waters isn’t just important — it’s sacred. The state’s 1985 stream access law, among the most progressive in the West, designates everything below the high-water mark as public property, no matter who owns the surrounding lands. Not so in nearby states such as Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming, where the ground beneath the riverbed remains private, proscribing floaters from, say, dropping anchor and eating lunch on a bank. When New Mexico passed a law this spring restricting access to streams, Montana governor Steve Bullock published an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal inviting anglers to move their businesses to his state.
“Public rivers are part of what Montanans see as our birthright,” says Rep. Zach Brown (D), who represents Bozeman’s House District 63.
Over the years, Montana’s stream laws have weathered frequent legislative and legal challenges from disgruntled private property owners, the singer Huey Lewis among them. No landowner, however, has tested the laws quite like James Cox Kennedy, an Atlanta media mogul with a net worth of $9.5 billion. Kennedy has owned 3,200 acres on the Ruby River for two decades, and he’s spent most of that time locked in battle with the state’s outdoors community. Kennedy’s predecessor, Bud Seyler, had permitted hunters and anglers to use public bridges to access the Ruby for years. In contrast, Kennedy declared war, stringing up barbed wire and electric fences in 2003.
The Public Land/Water Access Association sued, claiming that generations of use had established a “prescriptive easement” that granted the public a right to bridge access. In 2008 a judge ruled in favor of PLWA, and in 2009 the state legislature passed a law codifying the public’s right to use bridges as access points.
Outdoorsmen, it seemed, had won. But one easement, Seyler Lane, remained in doubt, and in 2012 the question made it all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, where Kennedy challenged the stream laws themselves. (As one judge incredulously pointed out, he was asking the court to find the state’s own constitution unconstitutional.) To widespread relief, the Supreme Court upheld the stream laws in 2014, and shunted the Seyler Lane dispute back to a lower court, where the kerfuffle remains today.
Though few landowners have achieved Kennedy’s notoriety, he’s just one of many wealthy new Montanans who have antagonized their neighbors by denying access. As Marshall Swearingen reported earlier this year for High Country News, many of the conflicts involve access roads — nominally public but easily gated in practice — into prime federal hunting lands. Public access, Swearingen wrote, “often hangs more on the will of a landowner than on whether a road is truly public or private.”
Many conflicts involve the Ted Turner emulators now snapping up ranchlands throughout the West. In 2014, for instance, Dan and Farris Wilks — fracking tycoons from Texas who own more than 300,000 acres in Montana — approached the Bureau of Land Management about a land swap that would have transferred prime elk-hunting acres into the billionaires’ hands. After hunters protested, BLM rejected the deal, although a modified version of the swap remains on the table.
“What’s bothersome to me is the effect that big money is starting to have on our land and wildlife resources,” says Mike Penfold, BLM’s former Montana director. “There’s a concerning and constant pressure to cut out the public.”
It was against this worrying trend that Ducks Unlimited’s membership lashed out, claiming the organization had effectively flouted public access by siding with Kennedy. “D.U. might say it doesn’t get involved in politics, but wildlife is politics now,” Thomas says. The public pressure forced the waterfowl group to insist that it remains an advocate for sportsmen’s rights. “To be clear, Ducks Unlimited strongly supports public-land hunting and other recreational access in all states,” CEO Dale Hall claimed in a statement.
That’s cold comfort for Thomas, who’s been expunged from the magazine's website: Clicking on his articles now yields only an error message. He's currently exploring the possibility that Ducks Unlimited violated nonprofit law or its own bylaws by dismissing him. Nonetheless, he says his primary fight isn't for his job — it's for Montana's stream laws. Therein lies a silver lining: Thomas’ high-profile firing has drawn new attention to his favorite cause. The importance of public access, he says, “is lit up like a neon sign.”
Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent for High Country News. Follow @ben_a_goldfarb