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Commissioners approve correction to Mitchell Slough portage route signs

 

Two new portage requests filed

By Michael Howell

Avid river floater Jim Stubblefield said he was “confounded” when he recently encountered the fence at Huey Lewis’ property on Bell Crossing, because the sign he had just read said to stay in the water and go under the fence. He ended up exiting the water and scaling the fence on land. The county commissioners have approved changing the sign to adequately reflect state law.

Avid river floater Jim Stubblefield said he was “confounded” when he recently encountered the fence at Huey Lewis’ property on Bell Crossing, because the sign he had just read said to stay in the water and go under the fence. He ended up exiting the water and scaling the fence on land. The county commissioners have approved changing the sign to adequately reflect state law.

At a meeting last Friday, the County Commissioners agreed to change the signage at the existing portage routes into Mitchell Slough to conform with state law. In a portage route request filed last November, Andy Roubik asked the commissioners to clear the way for public access by establishing designated portage routes on the river channel from Victor Crossing to Bell Crossing where fences and other obstacles impede passage. He also complained about the signs at the existing portage sites were contrary to what state Stream Access Law allows and should be changed.

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Fisheries Biologist Chris Clancy is in agreement with Roubik and has proposed that the signs be changed.

The current sign tells the public as they recreate upstream to “Pass under the fences that cross the stream. You must stay within the stream channel once you enter the water. The channel ends where terrestrial vegetation begins. Do not Trespass!”

According to Clancy, this is contrary to the law. He told the commissioners last March that the signs would have to be changed to reflect the fact that a person can exit the stream channel onto private property to get around a man-made obstacle like a fence or a bridge and then return to the stream as soon as possible.

This Friday he offered the commissioners a draft which he said “paraphrases the law” and could be temporarily added to the existing signs to clarify the issue. The ultimate wording for the signs has been postponed until all the necessary portage routes are established.

The commission is currently involved in establishing the portages requested by Roubik on the span stretching from Victor Crossing to Bell Crossing. That request was made last November 2012. It was brought before the commissioners in March 2013 by FWP Fisheries Biologist Chris Clancy. He reminded the commissioners that the law requires the commission to act on a request within 45 days.

The commissioners decided to split the project in half. They toured the portion between Victor and Bell Crossings and began the process of establishing those portage sites. They postponed the examination of the slough north of Bell Crossing to Stevensville until the southern portion between Victor and Bell is finished. Three portage routes remain to be established involving two landowners.

Commissioner J.R. Iman suggested, instead of paraphrasing the law, the law should be quoted exactly on the sign.

Clancy said that FWP often paraphrases the law on its signs to say it in a way that the average public can understand it. He said his paraphrase had undergone legal review and was believed to be an accurate rendering.

The commission agreed to amend the signs and to send certified letters of notification to the two remaining landowners between Victor and Bell Crossing who still need to be contacted about portage routes on their property.

Clancy said that he had tried to contact a few of the major landowners north of Bell Crossing but that neither Huey Lewis nor his ranch manager were returning telephone calls. He said he was informed by Ken Siebel’s ranch manager that Siebel did not want any FWP personnel on his property. Clancy noted that the law requires FWP to be present at the site examination.

During the discussions Ira Holt, Chairman of the Bitterroot River Protection Association (BRPA), asked the commissioners to consider sending out two more certified letters to landowners downstream from Bell Crossing. He told the commissioners that BRPA was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that confirmed public access to Mitchell Slough in 2008 and that had subsequently filed for three portage routes that were established in 2009.

Holt told the commissioners that the portage route which the county established in 2009 at BRPA’s request at the entrance to Huey Lewis’ property at Bell Crossing had been altered by the landowner and was no longer passable. He asked the commissioners to take another look at the fencing there and at a few other places along the slough on Lewis’ property and that of his neighbor Ken Siebel. He said there are fences across the slough that constitute genuine public safety hazards and block access. He said this is what prompted BRPA to submit the two new portage route requests.

In a letter submitted along with the two requests, the group urges the commissioners to begin action north of Bell Crossing. Holt provided a few photos of barbed wire fences and other dilapidated fences that are of immediate concern.

“To move these priority sites to the front burner makes sense,” it states in the letter. “So we are asking you, in the interest of public safety, to establish Portage Routes on two properties north of Bell Crossing. At this point in your process with Mr. Roubik, that only means adding two more certified letter recipients to the two you are considering today.”

The commissioners did not approve sending any additional certified letters out. But, after some discussion about what to do with the new requests, Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows said that the board was accepting the new portage route requests and would do its best to respond to them within the time frame required by law.

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