One of the great things about living in Montana is state law allowing public access to any stream, no matter whose monster home lies alongside it. But just a few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Montana Trout Unlimited saying the national group wanted to back away from involvement in any dispute — and there are many — over stream access with property owners. The national group noted “donor dissatisfaction” as a major reason for the move. Or in other words: Stop making the deep pockets angry.
Stream access became a hot-button issue in Montana more than two decades ago, when a grassroots coalition that included many Trout Unlimited members initiated a court challenge against two landowners who blocked access with fences and bully tactics. The coalition won in 1984, with the state Supreme Court basing its decision on the Montana Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine. In its ruling, the court said, “All water capable of recreational use could be so used regardless of streambed ownership.” A 1985 law codified stream access as a public right to use state waters within the ordinary high-water mark. Since 1985, however, a steady trickle of landowners has challenged that law.
It’s not surprising that, in a state that reveres fishing wherever a river runs through, the proposed hands-off policy from national Trout Unlimited brought an explosive response. E-mail comments from local members included such sentiments as “public access is the ‘holy grail’ here in Montana,” and “if TU pushes this proposal, I’m cutting up my membership card.” Several national board members of Trout Unlimited also opposed the proposed gag order, and more than one person suggested that the policy reflected the national group’s wealthy donors, some of whom want to privatize waterways and bar the hoi polloi from their streamsides.
The donor-influence argument might just hold water. James Cox Kennedy of Atlanta, Ga., an owner of the Cox chain of newspapers and other media, owns the 3,200-acre Trailsend Ranch in Montana’s Madison County, which is crossed by the Ruby River. Kennedy’s efforts to block public access to the river began in 2003, when he began stringing electric fences and erecting other impassable barriers at two county bridges on public roads that run through his ranch.
Barely a week after national Trout Unlimited floated its hands-off resolution, Kennedy filed suit against Madison County and the Public Lands-Water Access Association Inc. Kennedy claimed the county failed to stop the public from accessing the river at the bridges, thus violating his property rights. The timing aroused suspicion that Trout Unlimited’s proposed resolution was meant to appeal to Kennedy, who might then be inclined to contribute some of his considerable wealth to the organization. Several conservationists have made this charge, but none are willing to be quoted by name. What is on the record is a letter Kennedy wrote in 2005 to the University of Montana to explain why his Cox Foundation would not donate money for a new journalism building.
Kennedy wrote, “As you may know, many Montana residents are making it known that they are not happy with non-resident landowners in their state. In addition, stream and river access issues are also being raised. Until these issues are resolved, and our presence in the state is more appreciated, we have decided not to make any further contributions in Montana.”
In Montana, the controversy over national Trout Unlimited’s resolution, which was meant to apply to every chapter and every state council, quickly focused on what Montana Trout Unlimited would do. That state organization, I am happy to say, opposed the resolution, arguing that “stream access is critically important to the ongoing effectiveness of TU.” It also expressed a thanks-but-no-thanks response to a suggestion that stream-access activism could be funded through unaffiliated groups. Calling this a recipe for disaster, Montana Trout Unlimited argued that it would be both false and foolish for its members to work behind the scenes.
What turned into a grassroots revolt has apparently left the national board of Trout Unlimited reeling, because it recently rescinded its proposed resolution on what it called an “inherently divisive” issue. As Bob Teufel, acting chair of national Trout Unlimited, told a reporter, “I got 182 e-mails from our friends in Montana. … None of them included an offer to go fishing.”
The author teaches at a small engineering and science college in Butte, Montana.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.