The Bridges of Madison County

I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to politicians and their willingness to screw their own citizens on behalf of the wealthy

By Rob Breeding

The anti-access brigade in Montana continues to demonstrate that there’s no low too low when it comes to keeping the riffraff (that’s you and me) off Montana’s rivers. The rich want these public rights-of-way all to themselves, and too many elected officials in Montana seem eager to do their bidding.

The latest comes from the Ruby River, where you probably thought things were settled for good in January when the Montana Supreme Court ruled that anglers could use the public right of way at a bridge crossing to get on the water. Billionaire media mogul James Cox Kennedy owns the land on the Ruby where the bridge crosses, but not the right of way. He strung barbed wire and electrified fencing at the bridge to keep anglers out anyway.

That right of way at the bridge and also on the navigable Ruby River are rights owned by all citizens. So says the Montana Constitution, and that public access right has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the Montana Supreme Court.

After the ruling, the Supes sent the issue back to the Madison County District Court, so issues such as the width of the right of way at the bridge could be settled once and for all. So here’s the latest rub: According to a story in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Madison County Board of Supervisors has instructed the District Court that the county doesn’t need an easement that extends beyond the road itself. The county will never need access to land beyond where the asphalt ends, they told the court. And if the need to repair the bridge should ever require work in the area where a normal easement would apply (a certainty), the county will just ask Kennedy for permission.

I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to politicians and their willingness to screw their own citizens on behalf of the wealthy, but this takes it to a whole new level. County commissioners working for one part-time, but very wealthy, resident of their county, while essentially stealing access rights from everyone else.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the historic use of the bridge for river access had created an easement for recreational access, and that wouldn’t seem like something the commissioners could give away.

Access groups have asked Montana Attorney General Tim Fox to intervene.

One of the primary tactics of the anti-access forces is to use deep pockets to draw out these battles for as long as possible. In Ravalli County, wealthy landowners kept the public off a branch of the Bitterroot River for more than 15 years. If it hadn’t been for a small band of tireless access advocates — as well as the timely election of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who reversed his predecessor’s decision that had prevented Fish, Wildlife and Parks from intervening in the case — we might still be blocked from that reach of the Bitterroot.

Maybe the Bitterroot, and maybe more actually. That case had far-reaching implications. If the District Court ruling had stood, it would have established a precedent that could have been used on rivers across the state to shut the public out. That’s not just my non-expert legal analysis, that’s what the Supreme Court said in its unanimous opinion supporting access on the part of the Bitterroot River.

So we’ll see what happens next on the Ruby. As far as I know barbed wire still prevents access at the bridge on Seyler Lane. I suspect the members of the Montana Supreme Court won’t be too pleased with the Madison County commissioners’ antics. But the legal process has an inertia all its own. It still might be years before the barbed wire is finally removed on the Ruby. Heck, the first lawsuit by the Montana Public Land/Water Access Association in this case wasn’t filed until 2004, so by Mitchell Slough standards we’re only about two-thirds of the way there anyway.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. But there are too many people in Montana with more money than brains, and too many politicians eager to please them.

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