Page 2 of 4
"What you're paying for is the right to be able to recreate on that land," Thomas says, "but you have to be able to get there."
Getting there has to be by public road or navigable waterway. Under state law, a landowner can't close a state or county road if it goes through their property, regardless of how old it is. They can only claim ownership if the road is abandoned.
That's exactly what happened to the state trust land touching corners with Robby Dundas's property. When his father, George, died, he left a large portion of his land to Robby's sister. The Burlington Railroad Company had a line that went through her property and across state trust land. When the company moved the railroad, the old line was abandoned. The government didn't want it, so the section of railroad became hers. After she sold the property to Ted Turner, he had a gate built and closed it to the public.
Today, fewer than 100 yards separate the gate from a section of state trust land, but only Turner, his workers and his hunting clients can drive onto it. Turner also allows state agencies to pass through, but anyone else must walk for several miles up Sixteen Mile Creek if they want to get onto that section.
Turner's Bar None Ranch has grazing rights and outfitting rights to the trust land it borders. Turner also owns the Montana Hunting Company, an outfitting group that charges $14,000 per elk for a hunting expedition on the trust land.
Bobby Smith says that's not fair. "Montanans pay taxes on that land and a whole lot of others, and we can't even use them."
An infinitely small point
Tony Schoonen, of Ramsay, has worked to change that. He sits on the board of directors for the Public Land/Water Access Association and is president of the Montana Coalition for Stream Access. He and Jack Atcheson, a prominent hunting guide based in Butte, were behind the effort to get the Montana Legislature to pass the $2 access fee in 1991.
Before the fee was passed, lessees essentially controlled public lands as if they owned them outright. That meant not only grazing or growing whatever they pleased but also controlling who could or couldn't access it. Before Schoonen and Atcheson raised the issue, the agriculturally sympathetic legislature was in no hurry to change the law.
"We had to go all over the state to these public meetings," Schoonen recalls. "We were outnumbered 100-to-1, but we got it because it was public land."
But the law didn't solve the corner-crossing problem.