BUTTE – A coalition of sporting groups from throughout the state is heading to Helena en masse Monday to rally for a bill that would allow access for corner crossings.
House Bill 235 – which failed in a House Judiciary Committee vote on Jan. 30 – revises trespass laws to allow for corner crossing through private land.
On Monday, the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, will try to blast it out of committee and onto the House floor. She needs 60 votes to do so.
The sportsmen and women will leave on buses from Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Livingston and Missoula. The buses from Missoula will leave from the Grant Creek Town Pump at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 18, and are free of charge.
The state controls an estimated 1.3 millions acres of public land that can’t be accessed without owning adjacent land, getting permission from an adjacent landowner or trespassing, organizers said.
The Montana Sportsmen Alliance estimated that HB235 would allow access to 860,000 acres of public land. This would be done by allowing a person to step over the junction of four intersecting corners diagonally from one public parcel to another without stepping on the parcels of private land.
Opponents, including ranchers and farmers, contend the bill chips away at the rights of property owners. Opponents also believe the law is unnecessary because most landowners already allow sportsmen and women permission to cross their property. They also say that corners of properties aren’t so easily found, even with sophisticated GPS devices. Finally, the opponents contend, the issue is further complicated because corners often are fenced.
Sam Milodragovich of Butte, a member of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance, isn’t buying the argument of those who rejected HB235.
“Every single one of us fully respects private property rights,” Milodragovich said. “We also believe in the public access to wildlife. It belongs to all of us and we have to work together for a solution.”
Milodragovich, a wildlife biologist employed by NorthWestern Energy, also is a member of Skyline Sportsmen, and the Public Land-Water Access Association. Members of those groups, along with the Anaconda Sportsmen and the Montana Hunters and Anglers Action, have voiced support for HB235.
In essence, the sportsmen groups contend that the public has a right to access public land.
“One of the things that is going on is there are so many bills assaulting the things that we hold dear,” Milodragovich said. “They are chipping away at what we believe are our rights. Wildlife is held in a trust by the state.”
The Montana Sportsmen Alliance sent a memo to the Montana House Judiciary Committee that was prepared by J. Devlan Geddes and Spencer C. Thomas, attorneys from Bozeman, confirming the constitutionality of the bill under state and federal law.
That memo did not sway the committee.
Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, initially co-sponsored the bill, but withdrew his support during the committee vote because of concerns over the legality of the bill. He also said he will resist the motion to blast the bill onto the floor of the House.
In an email to the Standard, Kerns wrote, “There are two other bills in the process, HB404 and HB440 which offer a free-market solution to the question and I think they have real merits of addressing concerns of both sides of this issue. Action will be taken on them over the next few days.”
HB404 would provide money for the block management program, while HB440 would dedicate hunting license fee money to easement procurement.