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Smith River residents complain regulations block access

HELENA - Gov. Judy Martz voiced support Wednesday for Smith River landowners who contend state regulations governing use of the popular river illegally restrict their access.

She directed Jeff Hagener, director for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to investigate the complaint and whether to recommend changes in the river rules.

"If we're treading on their rights and we're not following the letter of the law, we should do something," Martz said during a meeting with representatives of the Smith River Landowners Association at the Capitol.

They said some regulations controlling river use violate a part of a law authorizing a management plan for the scenic waterway to control the large numbers of floaters that flock there each year.

The law prohibits any regulations that "restrict a landowner's access to or use of his land, improvements, water right or adjacent waterways."

Lance Lovell, a Big Timber attorney for some landowners, said rules adopted by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission do just that. They prevent ranchers from floating downstream with hired hands to get access to land for fence repair and weed control, he said.

Bill Galt, a rancher with land along the Smith River, noted that regulations are so tightly drawn as to allow only a landowner's immediate family on the river without a permit. They also limit how many nonfamily members can accompany a landowner and require them to pay a fee.

"I worry about the erosion of private property rights," Galt said.

The commission has overstepped its legal bounds by adopting such restrictions on landowner use of the river when a law specifically exempts them, Lovell said.

Landowners are prepared to challenge the regulations in court if they are not changed, he added.

While the rules may have been written to prevent landowners from acting as outfitters on the river, the licensing requirements for outfitting take care of that concern, Lovell said.

Galt said none of the landowners along the Smith are floating outfitters.

Hagener said the reason for the management rules are to control the numbers of people using the river, but they were never intended to restrict adjacent landowners from getting on the river.

He said the regulations are due for review this fall and the landowners' concerns could be addressed then.

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