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In Montana, average people can hunt and fish.

Think about that for a moment. Wide-open access is a remarkable and relatively unique state asset - an asset worth protecting. Montana does not want to wind up like other states where only waterfront property owners and the wealthy have access to public waters.

House Bill 309 would start us down that private road. It aims to "clarify" which kinds of waters the public may access for recreation, but it does so in a way that would limit access, not expand it.

Recognizing this, dozens upon dozens of Montana anglers, conservation groups and wildlife associations turned out in opposition to this bill at a March 9 hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee. Some 101 people testified against the bill, and more than 340 signed the registration sheet to oppose it - far outnumbering the 15 who testified and the 18 who signed in support.

They are rightly worried that the bill would expand the ban on recreational access to irrigation ditches by expanding the definition of an irrigation ditch.

Montana had this definition all worked out in 1985 when it accepted a stream access law hammered out by groups of both river recreationists and landowners. The Mitchell Slough threw it back into debate.

This 16-mile waterway in Ravalli County was bogged down in legal wrangling for years as some landowners along the Mitchell Slough argued that it had been so significantly altered that it no longer met the standards Montana's stream access law. Two district courts agreed with this reasoning, but the Montana Supreme Court had the final word. In 2008, the high court ruled in a unanimous decision that the Mitchell Slough has not been diverted from its historical course for the most part and is therefore a waterway subject to public access.

The Mitchell Slough has been a tangled mess of contention, but Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, along with Ravalli County commissioners, continue to work with private landowners along the slough to balance their interests with those of the public.

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Which is as it should be. The rest of the state's waters needn't be drug into these discussions, nor mired in fresh arguments over access.

Montana already has a state law that tells its residents exactly what a ditch is. Montanans don't need, and should not accept, any convoluted rewording of the law that would close off public access to the waters that have been visited by anglers, boaters, floaters and dunkers for years - and which should remain open to all in the years to come.

On Tuesday, the bill was tabled by the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation committee. The 11 members of the committee should be applauded for this move - and encouraged to keep it tabled. They need to hear from the scores of Montanans whose lives would be directly and negatively affected by this bill should it become law.

Those committee members are Donald Steinbeisser, R-Sidney; Taylor Brown, R-Huntley; Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency; Gary Branae, D-Billings; Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman; Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre; Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula; Eric Moore, R-Miles City; Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell; Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek; and Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder.

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