Who’s Got Next?

By Beacon Staff

Last week I joined in a celebration at the headwaters of the Missouri River. There, at Headwaters State Park, where the Mighty Mo’ begins, supporters of Montana’s Stream Access Law celebrated their latest victory: the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a District Court ruling that prevented access to the Ruby River.

The celebration followed a morning meeting in Bozeman of the Montana-based Public Land/Water Access Association, commonly known as PLWA. It was PLWA that fought the battle down on the Ruby. It’s useful to remember that case is still being sorted out. The Supreme Court ruled that anglers can use the full width of a prescriptive easement at bridge crossings for stream access, but sent the case back to the lower court to determine what the width will be.

It was a great victory for anglers.

There’s an old debate in outdoor writing circles about the ethics of disclosure. By disclosure, I mean “Is it OK to write about places — such as prime fishing holes — as that disclosure can have the effect of turning a secret spot into an elbow-to-elbow nightmare?”

That’s the rub. Write about good places and anglers will come, which may mean places won’t be as good in the future. But with the elbow-to-elbow crowd comes power, the power of advocacy, which increases exponentially as more voices are added to the cause.

Our collective voice as conservation minded hunters and anglers has power. And the relationship between our strength as advocates and the access we have in Montana to hunt and fish has never been clearer.

Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, closed that loop in his keynote address at the PLWA meeting.

“There’s a reason we have the best trout fishing AND the best access — they are connected,” Farling said. “Wild trout management coevolved with stream access.”

That’s a concept the folks at TU national headquarters didn’t always understand.

Back when the battle for access on Mitchell Slough in the Bitterroot Valley heated up, the TU board of directors balked. Their’s was a conservation organization, they said, not an access organization.

Montana is arguably the most important state chapter in the organization, and when word got back to the state that national wanted the Treasure State to back off, the fight for the soul of TU began. It was critical for Montana that the state organization not be limited to habitat improvements alone.

Ultimately, a change in leadership on the national board led to a change in TU’s position. State chapters are allowed to pursue important access causes, so long as they keep national informed, Farling said.

Unfortunately there continues to be a need. We keep winning in court, but the opponents of access have deep pockets. Maybe a shift in strategy is in order? Part of the message at Headwaters was that it’s time for some offense.

By the time we’d moved from Bozeman to Headwaters the mood had lightened. Maybe it was the spectacular setting, the hot lunch, or the cold, foamy beer that loosened everyone up. Probably it was just that everyone was happy to be celebrating one of the all-too-rare wins in the access wars.

There was one final cautionary note. As the celebration wound down, many of the key advocates for access lined up for a group photo. The hastily recorded images will someday serve as a piece of Montana history. For a moment it felt like we were all part of that history.

Unfortunately, the average age of these giants of the access wars was probably somewhere north of 75. The next time you are wading between the high-water marks remember you’re not really standing on river cobble; You’re standing on the backs of men like these.

The fear is that there won’t be a new generation of access advocates to take their place.

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