Major Montana Access Win

Major Montana Access Win

MTWin

A major lawsuit regarding public access to fishing water that was in contention for nearly 20 years has been brought to resolution. With the potential to set legal precedent in both it's home state and across the US, the fight to defend historical entry to the Ruby River in southwestern Montana was a classic battle of popular vs. private interests.

A tributary of the Beaverhead River, the Ruby is a small steam with a long legacy as a fly fishing resource, and has bridges crossing it dating back to the Gold Rush. Public access to streams and rivers in Montana is protected by one of the most progressive laws in the country, which mandates that the public has the right to walk, wade and float most natural waterways up to the high water mark.  As a western fisherman, I've always admired the foresight that this statute represented in protection of the public good, and envied the access that it provided to anglers in Montana. The legislative vision has proved to be a clear one, as fishing is now a major driver of the economy in the state, and plays a strong role in the culture and values of the people there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpAm-0TUSI0


At issue is the matter of access to the water. While anglers in Montana have the right to be in the stream channel, getting to it is another matter entirely. Across the west, private lands in the form of historical ranches are being bought up and accreted into vast holdings with monolithic trespass policies, a departure from the historical accommodation that ranchers typically afforded to fishermen when they were polite -- and brave enough -- to ask for it. In my time in the Rocky Mountains, more often than not, if I asked for permission from a landowner to fish a property with a promise to pinch my barbs, release my fish, pick up trash and report any problems I saw, it was granted.  The few times I wasn't, I respected it, and never made the decision to jump fence. This was, admittedly, as much a consideration of getting a scatter-gun load of rock salt in the ass as it was of good manners.


The legal representation of the incorporated holdings that are spreading across the region are much less approachable than historical land users, and are of considerably more litigious nature. The case of the Ruby River issue appears to be a textbook example in this regard, with the current landowner of the surrounding property, James Cox Kennedy -- principle shareholder of Cox Communications, with a corporate net worth estimated at $18 billion -- versus advocates the Public Land / Water Access Association (PLWA).


When Kennedy bought the land surrounding the Ruby in the 1990's, he apparently directed barbed wire and electric fencing to be strung across historical access points alongside bridges and other put-in's, immediately raising the ire of locals and provoking the PLWA involvement.  During the course of the 12 year battle to resolve the dispute, at one point an attorney for the Kennedy estate stated that his client "owned the rights to the ground, the water and the air over the river", a claim that resulted in PLWA to file suit against the County that was in charge of management of the bridges in question, to invoke the question of public right of way associated with the publicly funded infrastructures.

Interestingly, Kennedy himself has cited his participation in environmental initiatives through the incorporation of a negotiated Conservation Easement associated with the Ruby River property, a legal apparatus traditionally intended to keep natural resources intact while providing benefits such as modest publicly funded financial supports and tax breaks to working ranchers and farmers who otherwise might be forced to sell or subdivide their holdings. However, Mr. Kennedy's sprawling vanity would seem to not have required any additional public incentives to maintain private fishing resources for himself and his friends. In this case, the installation of a Conservation Easement may have been merely a PR strategy on the part of his legal team, or could have intended to reinforce access restrictions.

Turnabout being strategic fair play, PLWA attorneys called for clarification of the legal standard regarding appropriate right of way being necessary for the maintenance and upkeep of the support elements and abutments of the bridges, which arguably could not be conducted without access to a reasonable amount of space on either side of the structures. After almost two decades of wrangling and the ultimate involvement of the Montana Supreme Court -- which remanded final elements of the case back down to the county level -- the issue has finally been resolved without fanfare by the recent passing of a deadline for appeals going uncontested. Anglers can now legally walk to the water via narrow ingress provided directly alongside the bridges.


"This is a milestone. It's a rebuttal of the attempt of a very rich individual to control access to streams in Montana. He was defeated by a bunch of volunteers." said John Gibson, president of the Public Land/water Access Association.

When personal venality starts to affect the rights and resources of the people, it's good to see that the resolve the PLWA showed in ultimately prevailing benefitted us all. A legal standard was set, but more importantly, so was an example.  With the new upcoming federal adminstration likely to tilt the political terrain in regards to public lands management, it may make the kind of battle required to save the Ruby River look like a dress rehearsal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymRMX5ZQeuI


https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4b/RubyRiver.jpg/200px-RubyRiver.jpg

http://www.plwa.org/images/mt_Public_Access_Luck.jpg

http://www.bigskyfishing.com/River-Fishing/SW-MT-Rivers/ruby-river/ruby-river-graphics/upper_ruby1.jpg

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

American Rivers today released its annual list of America's Most Endangered Rivers, identifying ten rivers facing imminent threats. News

2019 Most Endangered Rivers

Fly Fisherman - April 16, 2019

American Rivers today released its annual list of America's Most Endangered Rivers,...

The Kamikaze Sculpin is easy to tie, versatile, and smartly designed to get the job done. Fly Tying

Tying the Kamikaze Sculpin

Charlie Craven

The Kamikaze Sculpin is easy to tie, versatile, and smartly designed to get the job done.

These dense, indestructible nymphs will improve your subsurface game. Fly Tying

Perdigon Nymph

Charlie Craven - January 15, 2019

These dense, indestructible nymphs will improve your subsurface game.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Bahamas - Bonefish

Bahamas - Bonefish

Conway casts for his personal best bonefish while fishing the Grand Bahama islands.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

Master fly tier Charlie Craven discuss the tools and materials needed to tie the Black Beauty.

Casting Backhand in Tight Quarters

Casting Backhand in Tight Quarters

A backhand cast is when you use your backcast to deliver the fly.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Golden riches in Wyoming's high-country heaven of the Wind River Range. United States

Wind River Range Wyoming

Greg Thomas - July 27, 2015

Golden riches in Wyoming's high-country heaven of the Wind River Range.

Drift boats help you search through miles of river quickly and effectively. Here's the top models on the market today. Gear

Top Drift Boats of 2019

John Fedorka - April 02, 2019

Drift boats help you search through miles of river quickly and effectively. Here's the top...

You don't always catch large trout in these alpine lakes and streams, but even the small ones are brightly colored treasures. Trout

Alpine Lakes for Remote Monsters

Landon Mayer - April 18, 2018

You don't always catch large trout in these alpine lakes and streams, but even the small ones...

See More Stories

More Industry

Fly Fisherman's documentary Industry

Fly Fisherman Magazine Documentary Recognized by Outdoor Writers Association of America

Fly Fisherman - June 24, 2019

Fly Fisherman's documentary "One Path" was recognized with two awards.

Guide Beer first went on sale in March 2019. Industry

Guide Beer Grant

Ross Purnell - January 23, 2020

Guide Beer first went on sale in March 2019.

The 2018 Jackson Hole One Fly not only raises funds for conservation projects and organizations in the greater Jackson Hole region, but this year's event was a literally a 'win-win' for all. Industry

Conservation organizations win big at Jackson Hole One Fly

Brian la Rue - October 26, 2018

The 2018 Jackson Hole One Fly not only raises funds for conservation projects and...

See More Industry

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.