River access is back on top of the agenda. For many of us it’s never moved from that perch. Montana has probably the best, most egalitarian access laws in the country, at least when it comes to rivers. Unfortunately, it looks like it will be a fight to keep it that way.
When I moved to Montana in 1992 the locals spoke of the state’s Stream Access Law in the kind of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for secret fishing holes. Folks 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 the place better than less civilized Western 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 Wyomingites will more readily join the Grizzly Bear Artificial-Insemination Team than admit Montana’s better at anything.
There have been a few bumps on the road to stream access nirvana since those pre-“River Runs Through It” days. One was the 15-year battle for access on a branch of the Bitterroot River called Mitchell Slough, where a group of wealthy out-of-state types 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.
Folks were slow to realize that the Mitchell Slough landowners were trying to do in the courts what would be impossible at the polls: overturn the access law. They were aided and abetted by a compliant Montana media that — with a few notable exceptions — fawned over the noble rich and trashed access advocates at every turn.
For years the fight was carried by a rag tag band of radical Bitterrooters — radical because they were fighting for the notion that the law applies to everyone, including folks with ridiculous amounts of disposable income to pay their attorneys. It took some time, but most of the big wigs in Montana trout circles eventually got a clue. Finally, the Montana Supreme Court stepped in, overturning a terrible lower court ruling in the anti-access crowd’s favor with an unanimous opinion that made clear if the landowners had gotten their way it would have been the first step in the eventual dismantling of the Stream Access Law.
Recently, the Supreme Court took testimony on the appeal of another lower court ruling designed to screw Montana anglers out of their access rights. This case comes from the Ruby River, where another dude with a ton of money was able to find a judge willing to go along with the theory that a 60-foot road easement narrows to the width of a bridge whenever the road crosses a river upstream from said wealthy landowners’ trophy ranch — thus keeping the riffraff out.
The Public Land/Water Access Association has taken up the fight. We can hope the Supes will blow this lower court ruling off the water with the same devastating force they dispatched the Mitchell Slough fiasco.
What we need to understand is that the Stream Access Law that seemed such a settled matter 20 years ago has become the cause celebre for radical property rights groups. These folks won’t be satisfied until they’ve destroyed Montana’s Stream Access Law and replaced it with some feudal-like system where the only folks who will be able to float Montana rivers will be guides who have paid dearly for the privilege, and those who can afford to pay those guides princely sums to do what generations of Montanans have always done: float rivers and catch fish.
We’ve got our work cut out to keep that from happening.
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