About a mile and a half south of Bell Crossing, there’s a 20-acre parcel of undeveloped property along the Bitterroot River that’s owned by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It’s considered a fishing access site, but according to FWP, it’s “land locked” and therefore difficult to use. The land is visited by anglers floating the river or walking the banks. But there is no road access, no boat ramp, no parking lot, no composting john. It’s just undeveloped space, and that’s why the state is thinking about putting it up for sale.
The parcel south of Bell Crossing is one of 37 fishing access sites FWP might unload in a general effort to, as one FWP official put it, “maximize the department’s resources.” The idea was hatched at a September meeting of the FWP Commission, which at the time was considering the purchase of additional land for fishing access. The Commission asked department staff to inventory FWP’s fishing access land and determine which parcels “could be disposed of with no impact to public access to specific streams or waterbodies.”
In all, FWP is considering the sale of some 1,500 acres spread around the state near several favorite fishing spots. At the same time, FWP is looking to add access sites on rivers including the Blackfoot, Clark Fork and Bitterroot. That’s good news for anglers and boaters alike, but it hasn’t dampened concerns about FWP’s plan to unload the land it already has.
Among some in the Gallatin Valley, where the trout-rich Jefferson and Madison Rivers meander through an ever-tightening grid of urban sprawl, the proposed sale of fishing access sites borders on sacrilege, especially since voters in the Gallatin Valley recently passed a $10 million anti-sprawl bond. The money is being used to purchase and preserve open space—an ambition many voters don’t want to see countered by FWP.
“The FWP turns around and is selling off land, and possibly to the subdividers,” says the Public Lands Access Association’s Bill Fairhurst of Three Forks, noting one particular 100-acre parcel of FWP access land on the Madison that’s being eyed for development. “I know it has the sportsmen in the area pretty upset. Most of these sites were purchased with money from the sale of our licenses. And with the population increasing, it does not make any sense to sell these sites. The threat is ever-diminishing access to public lands and public water.”
Before any state-owned land is sold, there will be a public comment period, says Allan Kuser, fishing access site coordinator for FWP in Helena. Kuser says the department is only considering the sale of excess land, not the actual points of access to public water. For instance, if FWP sells that 100-acre site on the Madison River, anglers will still be able to put their boats in and out of the water at the nearby Greycliff access area.
“We have the same values” as FWP’s critics when it comes to open space, insists Kuser. “That’s what we do. We’re still in the process of purchasing other sites.”
FWP may say it wants to increase access to its public lands, but that doesn’t mean the department wants to stop charging entrance fees at Montana state parks. House Bill 407, sponsored this session by Rep. Gail Gutsche (D-Missoula), was on its way to eliminating all entrance fees to state parks before the bill died in committee. In its place, an FWP-backed compromise bill—SB 336—proposes replacing park entrance fees with a flat $4 fee.
For $4 a year, Montana residents could receive a sticker or pass that grants them access to all state parks. Non-residents would still have to pay entrance fees, and residents would still have to pony up for overnight camping and other services.
Bob Raney with the Montana State Parks Foundation thinks the state should do all it can to eliminate park fees. Currently, Raney says, “You have to pay five bucks to watch the sunset,” referring to what it generally costs to simply drive into a state park.
Doug Monger, FWP’s parks division administrator, says SB 336 would allow the department to continue collecting fees while granting unlimited access for just $4 a year.
Park entrance fees currently constitute $475,000 a year in revenue.
“We had to crack the hard nut,” says Monger. “How do you pay for the services the public gets when they go to watch the sunset?”
Those in search of fresh air and a little open space can go to FWP’s fish access land—where it’s already free to enter and there often are no services. Of course, according to FWP’s plan, that same land may be dwindling.