Making Outlaws of Everyday Montanans

By Beacon Staff

During the campaign season, majority party lawmakers in the Montana Legislature promised voters they would focus in January on balancing the state’s budget, reducing unnecessary government and creating jobs. Who could argue with these general goals?

Apparently they were kidding.

Instead of addressing the economy, many Republican legislators are spending – many would say wasting – inordinate time reviving culture-war issues, addressing pet grudges, attacking what they perceive as government interference in business and our personal lives, and crafting divisive bills that, well, increase government interference in business and our personal lives, such as prohibiting companies from banning guns in employee vehicles, or forcing medical procedures on women.

There are no jobs in this stuff. Just like there are no jobs in authorizing the use of spears and silencers for hunting (unless you make spears or silencers), urging the formation of armed militias, reducing opportunities for voter registration, or banning agencies from using computer models – all examples of measures that don’t address pressing needs, but which are consuming time and taxpayer-funded resources at the Capitol.

Is this what you voted for in November?

Indeed if jobs, efficient government and balancing the budget are priorities – and no denying, they need smart, thoughtful focus – then how do these objectives square with a measure that will kick Montanans off our rivers and streams?

The House of Representatives recently passed legislation that will make outlaws out of everyday Montanans who fish, boat and swim. Sponsored by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, after being requested by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, HB 309 will classify as “ditches” many natural stream channels in the state – places where Montana families have been recreating for generations. Montana’s stream access law allows us to fish or swim in any natural stream or river capable of supporting recreation – as long as we stay within the normal high-water mark and off adjoining private land. However, the access law also, reasonably, prohibits public use of bona fide private ditches, such as those constructed off-stream by Montana irrigators. This law resulted from careful negotiation in the mid-1980s between river users and landowner groups.

HB 309 undermines our balanced stream access law by classifying as “ditches” natural streams that have been modified by irrigators, such as channels that have been manipulated by irrigation control structures. Also qualifying as “ditches” would be natural stream reaches that include flows augmented by irrigation water that was diverted from the channel, but returned to the stream farther down stream.

HB 309 will turn kids who swim in the side-channels of Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula or Fleshman Creek in Livingston into trespassers – no matter that families have recreated in these natural stream channels for generations. Public use in these waters and many others will be outlawed simply because years ago irrigators were allowed to control flows in these channels using diversion structures.

If this bill passes, it will be illegal for you to fish, swim or float without permission in many popular waters simply because they’ve been modified by an irrigation structure or include return flows. This list includes main-stems or side-channels of the Beaverhead, Milk, Big Hole, Yellowstone, Jefferson, Bitterroot, Gallatin, upper Clark Fork, and most if not all streams and natural sloughs in irrigated areas. If the bill passes, families, anglers, floaters and guides will be kicked off hundreds of miles of streams we have been using since Montana became a territory. Angling, much of it on streams, generates $300 million to Montana’s economy. Our nationally acclaimed stream and river fishing has long been a carrot for businesses locating to Montana. How does it help the state’s economy when you kick anglers off our streams?

Montanans have long accepted irrigators using rivers and streams. That’s because agriculture is important to the state, and because ranchers and farmers are our neighbors, friends and family members. If HB 309 passes it will harm the economy and our way of life, and it will unwittingly pit everyday Montanans against ranchers and farmers. Why would a legislator want to do that?

Bruce Farling is executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.