Maybe it was the complimentary hot dogs or the eager volunteers offering free shuttle service, but the Ruby River sure seemed inviting Sunday, as long as you were willing to skirt electric fencing and hoist your boat over blockaded bridge abutments to get to the water.
But the point of the morning’s protest float was precisely that Montanans aren’t willing to negotiate private barriers to access public streams. And according to the state’s 1985 stream access law, they shouldn’t have to.
Whether that point registered with James Cox Kennedy, who owns 3,200 acres with eight miles of Ruby frontage, is unclear; Kennedy, who’s responsible for the offending fencing and has reportedly asked Gov. Brian Schweitzer for a meeting to discuss the issue, was nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps he didn’t want a public entanglement with Butte Rep. Jon Sesso, who floated a stretch in his raft, or Butte Sen. Dan Harrington, who greeted protesters at Twin Bridges’ Jessen Park take-out.
It’s Madison County commissioners, not Kennedy, on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed this spring by float co-organizer Tony Schoonen’s Public Lands and Water Access Association. The suit, scheduled for trial in November, takes the commissioners to task for failing to remove what Schoonen and others regard as Kennedy’s illegal encroachments on the bridge and river right-of-ways.
Schoonen, 75, worked 50 years as a fishing guide in the area. He remembers canoe races on the Ruby before Kennedy purchased his acreage almost a decade ago. He also remembers electric fencing strung bank to bank before the association filed suit. There was none of that Sunday—just a few presumed ranch hands at the Lewis Lane crossing taking pictures of peaceful floaters preparing to paddle a lazy stream. As portraits of a protest, the images are bound to lack drama. To Schoonen and the hundreds who turned out to support the cause, they’re the very picture of the way things should always be.