When wealthy landowners and locals collide
Does a trout know who owns the body of water it lives in? This is not a Buddhist riddle. The answer is: Of course not. All a trout, elk or black-footed ferret cares about is whether the water or land can sustain them. Some of us have forgotten that unadorned fact. Motivated by laudable concerns over social change, some Westerners have moved into class warfare instead of asking a simpler and more basic question: “How is the land being treated?” A good place to answer that question is Mitchell Slough in Montana’s rapidly growing Bitterroot Valley.
Mitchell “Slough” is a 100-year-old ditch that diverts water from the Bitterroot River and moves it to downstream ranches. Over the years, the ditch became a low-quality "naturalized" stream fed by some springs. When I first saw it in the early 1970s, it was 40 feet wide and 10 inches deep, with its bed encased in mud. Few willows provided cover, so most of the trout that ventured up the channel were nailed by osprey and eaten.
Years later, the singer Huey Lewis, businessman Ken Siebel and other denizens of the “super-rich” -- a Western code word implying “evil-doers” -- bought ranches along Mitchell Slough. They donated conservation easements and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to restore aquatic habitat. They hired Dave Odell, a fishing guide and stream restorer, who’d helped secure in-stream flow for a dying Bitterroot River, to do the work. Odell got the mud out of the channel, created meanders, cabled logs and planted riparian vegetation along the banks. He also built nesting islands for geese and created spawning beds for trout.
Afterward, the ranchers closed the restored ditch-stream, which aroused the ire of a group called the Bitterroot River Protective Association. To gain public access, it promptly sued Lewis, Siebel and two dozen mostly unknown neighbors along Mitchell Slough. The group lost, but is now appealing the case to the Montana Supreme Court.
What do they claim? Despite more than 90 miles of the Bitterroot River and scores of tributary streams open to fishing, despite an excellent system of state river-access sites, and despite the ecological need for lightly used habitat, the Montanans suing apparently believe that their innate right to trespass and fish remains gravely injured. Their ideology appears to be: “If I can’t use it, what good is it?”
Members of the Bitterroot River Protective Association cared little for Mitchell Slough before it was restored, and now its members want to fish there to make a blunt point with newcomers: “This is our valley, not yours.” As a result, the group has tarred good people like Huey Lewis and Ken Siebel with the broad brush of elitism. They’re helped by having a charismatic leader in Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has vowed to protect river access for average Montanans. This adds little of substance to the debate, however, since Mitchell Slough, it turns out, is too small for floating.
I have come to believe that what matters most in the changing West is not land ownership, but land stewardship. Critics tend to focus on the bank account of the donor, not the on-the-ground benefit. But if public access wins at Mitchell Slough, what landowner would ever restore a ditch or spring creek again? Is that the outcome we want?
The message of Mitchell Slough runs deep. I have worked with easements for more than 30 years and now chair the New Mexico Land Conservancy. We have put over 50,000 acres of ranches, farms, and open space under easement in just four years; some of the donors are wealthy, some are not. In any case, wildlife don’t know the difference.
For the West to mature as a society, we need to get over the fact that rich people are moving here. It turns out that many of them care about the land just as much as we do. It matters little that a rich person saved a stretch of Mitchell Slough instead of a working-class person, or that George W. Bush expanded the income tax deductions for conservation easement donations instead of Bill Clinton. What matters most is our shared stewardship of this achingly beautiful landscape. The blame game will never conserve private lands in the West. This is the time for clear thinking and a new way forward.