By Andy Roubik, Corvallis
In November, I made a portage request to the county commissioners regarding Mitchell Slough from Victor Crossing north to the main stem of the Bitterroot River. This public waterway has been obstructed over the last several decades. The biggest challenge to this public water way was a legal one. New landowners along the route contended that it was a ditch because a lot of work had been done to keep this natural waterway opened and flowing for irrigation needs. Through many years of legal maneuvering and public expense, the public has been kept out of our public waterway.
Finally, several years ago a common sense ruling was made and our public waterway was reopened! Montana stream access law seems strong. Fishermen, boaters and outdoorsmen in general, as well as anyone valuing tourism in our great state, rejoiced.
Not so quick! The landowners lost the battle but won the war. Signs were installed at access points saying that anyone traveling this public waterway must not only stay in the water but must cross under all fences. This is a direct contradiction of Montana’s Stream Access law as it is legal to go around manmade obstacles in the most expedient manner.
While traveling this public waterway last summer, I was appalled at what they were telling us to do. Some fences’ lowest wires were barbed and several inches underwater. Others had electric wires 2” above the water followed by barbed wire and capped by another strand of electric wire! This is obviously a dangerous scenario so most people have had to forego this beautiful stretch of our public river. In addition to these impediments to public access, they have been able to enlist our county sheriff’s office to give trespassing tickets to those that step out of our public waterway to get around manmade barriers even though they were in full compliance with our Montana Stream Access Law. The last ticket that I know of was written this spring. This is about 30 years after this law was passed!
Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and particularly Chris Clancy have met with Commissioners Burrows, Iman and Foss, the Conservation District, myself and several landowners to discuss re-configuring fences and put up appropriate signage directing the public to the most expedient legal portage routes. Some of these landowners were willing (some were pleased) to have FWP amend their fences and put up appropriate signage. Some were not. Some of the landowners along our public waterway apparently don’t want to remove their obstructions. They have not allowed FWP on their land and/or do not return their phone calls. It is due to this obstructionism that FWP is turning my portage request back over to the county commissioners on 8/15/13 at 10 a.m..
I’m sure the landowners are speaking with our commissioners with the intentions of keeping their obstructions up, thus effectively keeping our public waterway closed to the public.
It is for this reason that I am writing today. If public access to our waterways is important to you, if tourism and our Montana economy are important to you, I encourage you to come to the commissioners meeting at 10 a.m. on Thursday, August 15th and let your voices be heard.
I know it often seems that our voices are not truly heard… e.g. Legacy Ranch. But we must try because if this is not resolved well, it will cut the legs from under the entire Stream Access Law and a way of life here in Montana.