Stream access in Montana has spawned many a controversy, but a Trout Unlimited (TU) proposal to withdraw America’s leading fishery conservation organization from the national stream access debate altogether is proving to be similarly contentious.
TU’s national board of trustees is currently weighing a proposal to “prohibit Trout Unlimited involvement in private property disputes,” says TU Vice President Steve Moyer. Tied to the controversial proposal is a popular plan to ramp up efforts on voluntary stream access programs.
The board will cast its vote by March 28, and Moyer says the decision will affect TU’s 450 chapters, which represent more than 150,000 members. He says Montana members have expressed the greatest concern nationally over what’s proving to be a “very difficult and challenging issue.”
Tom Anacker, chairman of TU’s Montana Council, can see why.
“To Montana Trout Unlimited, the ability to defend existing stream access rights is vitally important to our organization,” Anacker says. “It is an issue we’ve been actively engaged with for 25 years and it is very important to our members.”
Moyer says trustees’ desire to drop out of the debate stems from two Montana stream access issues TU recently waded into—the Mitchell Slough lawsuit in the Bitterroot and a proposed law clarifying public access rights at county bridges.
“A number of the people on our board think [stream access] issues are so complicated, so difficult to discern what’s right and what’s wrong, and so potentially troubling to landowners that we shouldn’t be involved in them,” Moyer says.
Some at TU are worried about alienating landowners and more specifically, their financial contributions; Moyer acknowledges concern over donations is “a factor in this equation” but says more important is cooperation with landowners.
Anacker warns, though, that TU risks alienating more than donors if it starts ignoring stream access.
“It is a mistake that will harm our organization and our ability to attract new members and hold onto some existing members,” he says. “The work we’ve done with protecting existing stream access rights has strengthened our organization and…it is a serious mistake in our view to change that.”