A proposed state law that could turn longstanding stream access conflicts into water under the bridge has been introduced in the Montana Senate, where wildlife and recreation groups joined by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) are urging support.
Sen. Lane Larson, D-Billings, has sponsored Senate Bill 78, which Montana Wildlife Federation Director Craig Sharpe calls the “Bridge Access Partnership Bill.”
It would cement in law a 2000 Montana attorney general’s opinion that the state’s bridges and abutments are in the public right-of-way and may be used by the public to gain access to the streams and rivers they cross. That finding came after several conflicts between landowners and boaters and anglers along the Ruby River in Madison County, where landowners had asked FWP to cite citizens for “trespassing” over fences that extended to bridges’ edges. More recently, in 2003 the Public Lands/Water Access Association sued Madison County over its alleged failure to enforce the attorney general’s opinion, though that case is still pending.
Sharpe says SB 78, which clarifies rights and responsibilities for both landowners and the public, would create middle ground.
“Instead of sportsmen, landowners and counties continuing to do battle legally, we’re hoping to resolve the issue,” Sharpe says.
Besides providing for “reasonable and safe” public access to streams and rivers from bridges and abutments, the law would also allow landowners to erect legal fences in the public right-of-way to control cattle as long as those fences accommodate public access. The bill also creates an arbitration process for settling disputes, and authorizes FWP to reimburse landowners for modifying fences.
“It seems like a fairly simple and fair concept to me,” says FWP Chief Legal Counsel Bob Lane, though opposition may still arise. Jay Bodner, of the Montana Stock Growers Association, says his group opposed a similar bill that failed last legislative session, but says it’s too early to weigh in on SB 78.
Says Tony Schoonen, director of Public Lands/Water Access Association: “I’m hopeful that the whole issue could be laid to rest by passing a comprehensive bill like this, so it’s no longer a bridge-by-bridge issue.”