Access on the Ballot

If you love recreating on Montana’s rivers, you better figure out who is who before you vote

By Rob Breeding

Few of us are one-issue voters, but as far as elections go, this is a one-issue column. That issue is access.

Most Montanans – as well as out-of-state visitors – support the state’s Stream Access Law, considered the gold standard as far as these things are concerned. Most also support maintaining public ownership of public lands.

Unfortunately, the Stream Access Law is under attack. Back in the early 1990s, when things first started heating up in the Bitterroot, it was hard to get people to recognize the threat. There, a group of landowners tried to block access to a branch of the Bitterroot River known as Mitchell Slough. That battle raged until 2008 when the Montana Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Slough was part of the river.

More recently the action has been on the Ruby River. There, landowners affixed barbed wire to bridge abutments to prevent anglers and other river users from reaching the water.

Those folks were just following the long-standing tradition of using the public right-of-way that extends beyond the asphalt to reach what was essentially another public right of way: the river.

That case also landed in the Supreme Court. Again, the court ruled in favor of public access.

And then there’s the almost cult-like obsession some of our political leaders have developed for transferring ownership of federal lands to the states. Listening to these folks is almost Kafkaesque. No amount of reason will change their minds. Not the fact that states can’t afford to assume ownership, or that states routinely have to sell lands to generate revenue, or that state lands often are not actually open to the public.

The reality is transferring federal lands to the states ultimately means transferring them to private ownership.

Hunters and anglers blessed to live in the West understand how good we’ve got it. I either hunt or fish more than 100 times a year, and I do so almost always on public lands. I don’t have to ask permission. I don’t need to pay a fee. I’m free to hunt and fish when I decide I’m ready to go, because I own the land I’m using.

That kind of freedom, freedom that allows everyone, regardless of rank or position in society, to step out onto their land and gather food for themselves and their family, has become a kind of anathema for this new, anti-public-land movement. They see millionaires and paupers alike, all free to use this great gift of public land our forebears were wise enough to leave behind, and it enrages them.

They’re dedicated to destroying the most egalitarian system of land and wildlife management our planet has ever known, and replace it with one where everyone has to pay an entrance fee.

So remember when you go to the polls that groups like the Montana Growth Network dumped $900,000 into a Montana Supreme Court race in 2012. Remember that $400,000 came from two men, Charles Schwab, who donated $300,000, and James Cox Kennedy, who gave $100,000. Schwab is one of the landowners who tried to block access to the Bitterroot, and Cox strung up the barbed wire on the Ruby.

And remember that the judicial candidate they backed voted against access on the Ruby.

I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote. There’s plenty of information available for citizens who want to educate themselves on which candidates are likely to support, and which are likely to oppose, public access.

No matter what you decide, understand this: Montana’s Stream Access Law is a target. It will take a concerted fight by state residents, as well as river-loving types across the country, to save it from this assault.

Some of the people on the ballot next week will make this fight harder. If you love recreating on Montana’s rivers, you better figure out who is who before you vote.

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