BUTTE – Conservative property rights groups and conservation organizations have become involved in the bitter, eight-year legal fight over access to Montana streams from bridges.

Two conservative groups – the United Property Owners of Montana and the Political Economy Research Center – have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case between a sportsmen’s group and Madison County. In addition, Montana Trout Unlimited has entered the fray on the other side to support the Public Lands Access Association in the case.

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2004, was against the county over access to the Ruby River, near Sheridan, from a bridge on the property of James Cox Kennedy, a billionaire media heir. The case prompted the passage of a law by the Legislature that guaranteed bridge access from established county roads, but this year a Madison County district judge ruled that access for recreational use is not guaranteed on roads established by a historic use through a prescriptive easement.

Bruce Farling, Montana Trout Unlimited executive director, said the case has become the latest in a series of attempts to overturn the state’s stream access law. That law guarantees anglers and recreationists the right to access public waters by staying within the ordinary high water mark of rivers and streams.

“They want to wreck the stream access law to keep people off of three bridges,” he said. “It could have some pretty big implications around the state.”

But Reed Watson, a Political Economy Research Center research fellow and applied programs director, said his group filed the brief as a statement that allowing public access to all waters can harm a fishery. That was at issue in the Mitchell Slough case, where rock star Huey Lewis had made major habitat improvements on a side channel of the Bitterroot River – before the Montana Supreme Court ultimately ruled the public had access to the waterway after a legal fight with sportsmen.

“In some instances, private ownership leads to good stewardship of environmental resources,” he said. “In many cases, such as the Mitchell, there were measurable, definite public benefits that flowed out of the private land and into the public river – the Bitterroot River.”

Watson added that the slough is a spawning ground for trout and anglers can step on the eggs. And he said that as public access to water is continually expanded, it takes away the incentive for private landowners to make improvements.

“Having public access to a lot of water is not driving the fact that there’s a lot of good fishing,” he said.

Margot Ogburn, a Bozeman lawyer representing the United Property Owners of Montana, said her client filed its brief because it wants to protect property owners’ rights in Montana.

“We were just asking the Supreme Court to affirm the district court’s most recent decision,” she said.

Farling, however, disputed the assertion from Watson that private ownership of waters is a recipe for better habitat. He said Montana has the most liberal stream access law in the nation and the best trout fishing and that’s because when the public has a stake – it cares for the resource.

Matt Clifford, a lawyer who filed the brief for Trout Unlimited, said the case and how it could affect the stream access law also could have implications for Montana’s trout fishing industry.

“We’ve got a huge recreational fishing industry that’s established here that’s built up around stream access,” he said. “This is just the latest challenge and we certainly hope this puts it to bed once and for all.”

(6) comments

Bob Elan
Bob Elan

Mitchell Slough was not harmed by public access. The ones that harmed Mitchell slough, were the very ones who claimed that they improved the slough. they dewatered it out of greed and spite. These are some of the worst landowners in the state. These self proclaimed stewards would rather ruin a stream than share public property with the public. Dewatering is much more destructive than a small amount of foot traffic by sportsmen who are generally aware of spawning beds and who avoid stomping them like these landowners stock do.


It's funny, just recently an LTE came in that headlined 'GOP, Republicans are against public access" and I challenged that writer's claim by actually citing Kennedy's actions to destroy our stream access law.
You should google James Cox Kennedy's political affiliations.
From what I've seen as a ranch owner here in Montana is that liberal democratic land owners have the worst record for public access.
I could cite to you many instances where liberal out of state buyers of ranchland have immediately posted public access as though they make the law now that they own the land.
I have seen one instance where a wealthy liberal ranch owner sold the ranch immediately after purchasing it because they were infuriated that the public could legally access the stream.


If Montana has great fisheries, its because Montana has few people to mess them up.


Nobody, no matter how much money they have, should be allowed to block access to public waterways from a public road or bridge.


Private property right are constantly being infringed on by people that have no respect for landowners rights. The rush by land trusts (Nature Conservancy, et al) to lock up our lands is truly tragic. Management decisions are made by out of state environmentalist with no consideration of Montana's legacy of ranching and farming. TU has been at the forefront of eliminating private property rights and it's about time for Montana to step up and stop all of this!


Whether "in some instances, private ownership leads to good stewardship" or not is and should be irrelevant to the LAW guaranteeing the public access to public waters from public bridges. Arguing that a slough (in a totally separate case) is a spawning ground for trout is equally irrelevant to this particular case and to the LAW which was previously passed.

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