At a meeting last Thursday the Ravalli County Commissioners informed members of the Bitterroot River Protection Association (BRPA) that the group’s request for portage routes on Mitchell Slough north of Bell Crossing would have to be submitted to the Bitterroot Conservation District for processing. Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that the law gives jurisdiction to the Conservation District. He said the District would have to officially give up that jurisdiction and pass it on to the Board of Commissioners before they could legally take up with it.
As a result of a lawsuit filed by BRPA, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Mitchell Slough was open to recreational access under the state’s stream access law. The group made three portage route requests at that time that were established at the Tucker Headgate, Victor Crossing and Bell Crossing.
Then last November, recreationist Andy Roubik filed a portage route request with the commissioners, asking for passage to be established at several fences along the river channel from Victor Crossing all the way to Stevensville. The county never responded until this spring when the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) brought it before the board for consideration, reminding the commissioners of the 45-day limit the law establishes for their response to such a request. The commissioners took up with it and the process is still ongoing six months later.
BRPA filed its latest request for portage routes from Bell Crossing to Stevensville in September and BRPA Chairman Ira Holt told the commissioners in a letter at that time that the organization was submitting it so that the process could be placed back within the legal timelines outlined in the law as Roubik’s request was already way outside those bounds. He stated that there were safety issues involved that needed to be addressed in a timely manner. He also noted that the portage route already established where the slough enters the property of Huey Lewis at Bell Crossing had been altered, making it unpassable.
At last Thursday’s meeting, Lewis’ ranch manager Wade Larson said that the fences had been weighted down to prevent cattle from going underneath them. He asked the commissioners how far a landowner had to go to allow public access.
“At what point do we decide that enough is enough?” he asked. “You can get a canoe under it, but you can’t get an inflatable craft. What’s next, a barge? Where is it going to stop?”
BRPA secretary Michael Howell responded, saying that the law allows access down the state’s rivers. He said the public had a right of way that should not be obstructed. He said if the waterway can accommodate inner tubes, or inflatable kayaks, then the public has a right to use them.
“If you could float a barge on it, then, I suppose, you have the right to float a barge on it,” he said.
The commissioners made some findings about the various obstacles along the slough and said they would forward them to the Conservation District. BRPA plans on submitting its request to the District at its next meeting on November 12.