Public access under fire from Montana GOP

Public lands in the National Forest along the upper reaches of Lower Deer Creek, Montana. Photo by Brent Zundel

Public lands in the National Forest along the upper reaches of Lower Deer Creek, Montana. Photo by Brent Zundel

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
March 3, 2011

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees might not be digging trenches in front of their offices around the state, but the agency is under fire from the Montana Legislature. Legislators are also attacking public access with over 150 bills that specifically target wildlife and public lands issues.

Some of the most ludicrous bills have been killed, but one of the most contentious still threatens Montanans. House Bill 309, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, would gut the landmark 1985 Stream Access Law.

The result of conversations between landowners and recreationalists, the 1985 law allows public access in all rivers up to the high water mark, without regard to ownership of land below the river. In essence, it ensures that private citizens cannot own the rivers.

HB309 does not add any additional protection to private ditches – which are already protected under the old law. Instead, it would reclassify hundreds of miles of stream and river channels as irrigation ditches, thus inhibiting public access.

According to the bill, whole streams and rivers could be classified as private ditches if there is any kind of control structure at the head of the channel. Whenever diverted water comprises the majority of a stream – as is often the case in many agricultural areas – the stream could be effectively privatized.

Other bills specifically target Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and attempt to micromanage one of the state’s most successful agencies through legislation.

The inherent irony should not be lost on Montanans. The Legislature frequently relies upon brief, five-minute commentaries to help make decisions; FWP holds extensive public comment sessions and lengthy deliberations before making changes that affect Montana sportsmen and recreationalists.

Who really understands the issues better?

House Bill 272, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, would eliminate FWP’s ability to use hunting access fees to acquire more public lands. These lands are purchased by the agency to provide Montanans with public lands on which to hunt, fish and recreate.

Furthermore, Senate Bill 301, sponsored by Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Helena, would place a moratorium on land acquisitions by FWP, if the land exceeds certain metrics.

Apparently, legislators think we have enough public land on which to hunt already.

Instead of passing meaningful legislation and letting one of Montana’s most successful agencies do its job, the Montana Legislature is trying to privatize our wild resources further. FWP has a long history of common-sense management – something the Legislature currently lacks.

Simply put, the Legislature is catering to private landowners at the expense of tens of thousands of citizens. The issues at stake here are bigger than convoluted pieces of legislation: Public access is a central tenet of what it means to be Montanan.

In a state with the largest number of hunters per capita, miles of unmatched blue-ribbon trout streams and some of the best wilderness areas in the lower 48 states, curtailing public access is unacceptable.

Despite the divisive political climate, this is not a partisan issue. In fact, it is about the American dream: ensuring that our kids have greater opportunities than we did by providing them with more public land.

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