Stream Access Hearing Draws Overflow Crowd

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Upset anglers turned out in droves Tuesday to fight back against a legislative proposal they say would limit stream access and reopen a bitter dispute over a segment of the Bitterroot River that anglers say is a side channel and landowners argue is an irrigation ditch.

Sportsmen from across the state bearing shirts adorned with slogans like “Any River, Any Time” and “Kill House Bill 309” lined up for hours to speak in opposition to the bill. The crowd, which included a smaller number of supporters led by ranchers, overflowed out of a hearing room that holds 215 people making one of the largest crowds this legislative session.

Opponents said the proposal threatens their livelihoods and pastimes by limiting stream access which could be classified as ditches under the proposed law. Property owners said the legislation clears up legal definitions of ditches to protect their properties and does not impact access to public waterways.

The issue reopens a long-fought dispute over whether or not a slough running through the Bitterroot Valley property of 1980s rocker Huey Lewis and others is a public waterway and open to recreational use. In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of anglers and said it was subject to the state stream access law.

The Mitchell Slough splits from the Bitterroot River at Corvallis and rejoins it near Stevensville. It has been in dispute by anglers who say it is a side channel they have fished for years and landowners who argue it is a private ditch or canal.

The state’s stream access law says that Montana rivers and streams are open for public use if reached from public property, even if they eventually flow through private land.

The dispute over the bill all boils down to the legal definition of what a ditch is. Supporters of the measure say legal code doesn’t clearly say what a ditch is, an error they say the bill corrects. While people opposing the measure say ditches are already defined, easily identifiable and the proposed legislation muddies the definition.

Those backing the measure said the issue is about protecting land owner property rights of irrigation ditches which they say have been used by overzealous anglers.

“Irrigations are designed for work not for play and they aren’t designed for recreation,” said Republican Rep. Jeff Wellborn, who is carrying the bill.

Irrigation ditch owners supporting the bill also said ditches are a safety hazard for recreation activities and could be damaged incidentally.

Those opposing the measure said it was abundantly clear what a ditch is and they had no desire to fish in one. They said their issue with the bill was that it would create an overbroad definition of ditches that would limit access to public waterways.

Robin Cunningham, a fishing outfitter from Gallatin Gateway said the passage of the bill would hinder operation of outfitting companies like his because they would have to avoid disputed waterways while lawsuits are resolved.

In addition to the large number of sportsmen opposing the bill, several Democrat and Republican lawmakers also opposed the measure.

Sen. Jim Shockley said the bill wasn’t about anything other than the Bitterroot Valley dispute and not about property rights. Shockley said the legislation would just spawn a large amount of lawsuits opposing it.

“The only people who would benefit from this bill are a few landowners in the Bitterroot and lawyers,” said the Republican from Victor.

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