Just in time for fishing season, Montana’s stream access battle resurfaced when a Ruby River landowner recently countersued the recreation group seeking river access at bridges that cross his land.
Media mogul James Kennedy argues in court papers filed March 16 that Madison County has wrongly tolerated illegal trespassing by the Public Lands Access Association (PLAA), which maintains the public rights-of-way associated with two county bridges on Kennedy’s land grant unfettered public use. The countersuit is the latest development in a court fight that began in 2004, when PLAA sued Madison County over the same issue.
The rights-of-way the county obtained for the Lewis and Seyler bridges only apply to terrestrial travel and don’t include provisions for streamside access, Kennedy contends. Furthermore, he says, parking near the bridges and accessing the stream from their steep embankments creates a dangerous situation, and the county’s handling of the issue violates his private property rights.
PLAA Director Tony Schoonen says Kennedy’s latest arguments are bogus. He says Montana’s stream access law and a 2000 opinion by Montana’s attorney general uphold the public’s right to access streams by using bridge abutments and the public rights-of-way that complement them.
Lance Lovell, Kennedy’s attorney, says his client isn’t contesting access rights: “Jim Kennedy has not challenged the Montana stream access law—in fact, he’s relying on existing stream access law to protect his private property rights.”
Lovell points out that all county roads aren’t treated equally by the 2000 attorney general’s opinion. That ruling distinguishes public access guaranteed by typical rights-of-way from the access afforded by prescriptive easements, such as those governing the Lewis and Seyler bridges.
But Schoonen insists Kennedy is merely trying to “privatize the Ruby River” by limiting the scope of public access, and he urges people to attend a rally at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 31, at Butte’s Copper King Inn, where Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Attorney General Mike McGrath will be keynote speakers.
Either way, it’s evident that another fishing season is destined to come and go without any resolution on the Ruby.