Sold Downriver 

The threat to restrict access to Montana’s waters

When it comes to fishing, Montanans have it good. Not only do we have some of the best trout streams in the world, but we can fish them.

Can’t every American fish their local streams, you ask? Oh, no, my friend. Try wading up the Beaverkill River—the birthplace of American fly-fishing—and you’ll soon run into some good old-fashioned New York barbed wire, strung right across the stream. Private property. Keep out.

In Montana, all streams that support recreation are open to the public within the high-water marks. If you ever visit small streams like the Little Blackfoot, the East Fork Bitterroot, or the Stillwater, you’ve got Montana’s stream access law to thank. That law places reasonable limitations on public use of streams bordered by private property, and gives each of us the right to walk, wade, float, and fish non-navigable streams.

Now the Denver-based, right-wing Mountain States Legal Foundation has asked a federal district court to invalidate Montana’s stream access law on all but our largest, navigable rivers.

At a post-primary gubernatorial debate, a worried angler asked the candidates how they would deal with the issue if elected governor.

Mark O’Keefe: “I think it’s an ill-conceived lawsuit to take away the rights of Montana sportsmen. ... That access belongs to the people of Montana.” O’Keefe outlined the steps he would take as governor to protect Montanans’ stream access.

Judy Martz: “I will stand up always for our property rights. The water, I believe, does not belong to us. The law says that the water does not belong to us, even when we own the property around both sides of it. I, as a property owner myself, would not want people in. The law does not allow them to come up. This is not something new, it’s going to come up again. In my opinion wherever we can protect the property rights of the individual, we must do that.”

Martz’ answer was a little mixed up, but it seems clear that Martz was complaining about public access to streams. She explicitly spoke on behalf of “us” who own stream-side property, not “us” the general public. Asked about a case that pits claims about private property rights against public access, Martz vowed to support the property rights of individuals. That’s a pretty clear statement of opposition to public stream access.

In contrast, since the debate, Martz’ campaign has said that Martz fully supports Montana’s existing stream access law. Martz’ campaign manager Shane Hedges explained that in the debate Martz voiced her strong general interest in protecting the rights of private property owners, but said this did not indicate opposition to stream access. “There is no question people ought to have access to the streams,” Hedges said.

I think it’s fair for a political candidate to revise positions based on further research, thought, and feedback, particularly after an unexpected question and a spur of the moment answer. So let’s grant Martz the right to clarify—or change—her position, and be glad both gubernatorial candidates support the existing stream access law.

But let’s also consider what Martz’ original answer reveals about her real beliefs. Without cue cards, handlers, or a carefully polled out script, Martz was asked which she supports on our streams, private profit or public access. She instinctively chose private profit, and ignored public access rights.

Public access versus private profit is an issue that is going to play itself out in a hundred ways in the next four years, whether through hunter access to block grant lands, or rights of way to public land, or the need to re-work the stream access law.

Which candidate will best protect public access to our streams, our wild country, our hunting, our fishing, our hiking, our land? Do we want a governor who responds instinctively that public resources belong to the people of Montana, or one who works for “us” the owners of expensive real estate?

John Adams is development director of the Montana Wilderness Association. Opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the MWA or the Independent.

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