The fight for access to Mitchell Slough down on the Bitterroot River in the mid-1990s went largely under the radar, despite the case’s existential threat to Montana’s Stream Access Law. If the Montana Supreme Court hadn’t overturned a District Court decision supporting the “No Trespassing” signs landowners placed along the river, a pathway to unraveling Stream Access would have been created.
The case was an eye opener for me, a youngish reporter and a relatively recent migrant to Montana. Before Mitchell Slough, I perceived the battleground was conservation. Conservation of land and water, meaning a shift toward land-use practices that allow wild places a measure of relief from our tendencies, and need, for extraction. But Mitchell Slough foreshadowed a different fight.
In the 1990s access was an emerging skirmish. Today, it is unmistakably a multi-front war to preserve fishing and hunting.
It was harder to recognize this threat 25 years ago. That was an era when knocking on doors was still a productive technique for gaining access to private hunting grounds. The value of exclusive access rights was still a fuzzy concept. And the landowners along Mitchell Slough had an impressive record of restoration work on this side channel of the Bitterroot River. A lot of conservationists never got beyond that restoration portfolio, failing to understand there is no stewardship exception to the Stream Access Law.
They had done so much to correct the mistakes of previous owners, or so went this line of reasoning. Who are we to insist these new conservationist/landowners abide by the law too?
The last three decades of access battles have laid bare the contours of this fight. In the 1990s some might be excused for failing to recognize the threat. But today? If you don’t see it, you’re just not paying attention.
And this is the caldron in which we’ve been handed William Perry Pendley. Pendley was tagged as the new head of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees 245 millions acres of public land, or something on the order of one-tenth of the country.
Pendley wasn’t formally appointed to the post. That would require U.S. Senate confirmation, and considering Pendley’s views on public lands, such a confirmation process would be contentious. Instead, he’s serving in an acting capacity, a favored tactic for filling posts in the current administration.
If you’re wondering what’s so controversial about Pendley, it primarily centers on his notion that federal public lands are unconstitutional. He made that case in a National Review article titled “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands,” published in 2016.
There are other things to worry about, including the role of the Mountain States Legal Foundation — where he served as president — which once sued to overturn Montana’s Stream Access Law. The case was turned down for review by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, seemingly settling the constitutionality of the matter.
I’d like to think so, but I have doubts. The anti-access movement is well funded and maintains a cult-like devotion to its ideology despite how unpopular it is with the American people. Former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz learned this in 2017 when he pulled a proposed bill to sell off public lands. The reaction to Chaffetz’s bill was swift and fierce. He announced his decision to yank H.R. 621 with a social media post that featured the Utahn holding a puppy.
Kids and puppies. These are the favored shields of politicians hoping to deflect incoming bombardment from an angry public. But 2017 seems almost quaint today, those halcyon days when a poor policy proposal actually drew attention from the press and public.
Pendley’s ascension has gone nearly unnoticed. That, considering his agenda, should terrify every hunter and angler.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.