River access in Montana is worth fighting for

 

For people who think heaven must be a lot like fishing and floating Montana’s beautiful rivers, access to them is once again at the top of our agenda. For many of us, it’s always been our first concern. Montana has probably the best and most egalitarian access laws in the country -- at least when it comes to rivers: We can travel them unimpeded within the high-water marks on either side.

But because some folks with almost unlimited amounts of money will go as far as possible to protect their privacy and block public access, it looks like we’ll have to keep fighting to retain our river rights.

When I moved to Montana 21 years ago, the locals spoke of the state’s Stream Access Law in the kind of reverential tones usually reserved for secret fishing holes. Everyone had the mindset back then that stream access was a settled matter.

“We have it, and we’ll enjoy it until we’re too old to wade between the high-water marks,” was the attitude.

Montanans cherish the law as something that makes living here far better than living in states such as Wyoming, where a dude can be cited for trespass for dropping an anchor in the wrong place. Most Wyomingites readily concede that when it comes to stream access, Montana has it all over the Equality State. And generally speaking, Wyomingites will more readily join the Grizzly Bear Artificial-Insemination Team than admit that Montana’s better at anything.

There have been a few bumps on the road to stream-access nirvana since the halcyon days before A River Runs Through It. One of them was the 15-year battle for access on a branch of the Bitterroot River called Mitchell Slough. There, a group of wealthy landowners essentially argued that they’d done plenty of work fixing up their spreads after they bought them from the native Bitterrooters who’d trashed the joint, so they should be exempt from the Stream Access Law. They then proceeded to hang “No Trespassing” signs on the river and defied anyone to make them take them down.

Some Montanans were slow to realize that the Mitchell Slough landowners were trying to do in the courts what could be impossible at the polls: Overturn the access law.

For years, the fight was carried on by a ragtag band of radical Bitterrooters — radical because they were fighting for the notion that the law applies to everyone, including landowners with ridiculous amounts of disposable income to pay attorneys. It took some time, but most of the bigwigs in Montana trout circles eventually grasped how serious that fight was. Finally, when the Montana Supreme Court became involved in the Mitchell Slough case, it overturned a lower court ruling with a unanimous opinion that made clear that if the landowners had gotten their way, the state’s Stream Access Law could eventually be dismantled.

But even though people didn’t realize it then, it is clear now that Mitchell Slough was just an early skirmish. In late April, the Montana Supreme Court took testimony on the appeal of another lower court ruling designed to deprive Montana anglers of their access rights. The case comes from the Ruby River, where another man with deep pockets — media mogul James Cox Kennedy — found a judge willing to go along with his move to curtail river access. The lower court judge had agreed that a 60-foot road easement narrows to the width of a bridge whenever the road crosses a river upstream from a wealthy landowner’s trophy ranch — thus keeping the riffraff out.

Kennedy’s interests extend beyond the easement dispute, as his attorney made clear at the court hearing on the campus of Montana State University. The state, Kennedy’s attorney argued, had been wrong all along in allowing any access on the Ruby. That’s an argument unlikely to gain much purchase with the Montana Supreme Court, but its intended audience is more likely the Roberts’ U.S. Supreme Court and its increasing obedience to the desires of the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the Montana-based Public Land/Water Access Association has taken up the fight, and we can only hope it will prevail. In the meantime, we need to understand that Montana’s Stream Access Law, which seemed a settled matter just a few decades ago has become the cause célèbre for several radical property-rights groups. They won’t be satisfied until they’ve gutted the law and replaced it with a feudal system, where the only folks able to float Montana rivers will be guides who have paid dearly for the privilege. Then, local people will also be forced to pay to do what generations of Montanans have always done: Float rivers and catch trout.

We’ve got our work cut out to keep that from happening.

Rob Breeding is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He teaches journalism at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, writes an outdoors column for the Flathead Beacon newspaper in Kalispell.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....