Help Stop HB 309 and Preserve Public Access to Montana Rivers

This is what’s at stake with HB 309.

“We’ve gone 27 years with the Montana Stream Access Law without a problem. All of a sudden we’ve got a problem.” Scott Reynolds, Ramsey, a speaker opening a meeting last week hosted by the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited. TU sponsored the meeting to inform the public of potential problems with House Bill 309.

Rep. Jeffrey Welborn (R-Dillon) sponsored HB 309. Ostensibly, the bill would reverse a 2008 Montana Supreme Court ruling that Mitchell Slough, a 16-mile side channel of the Bitterroot River, is open to the public under the Stream Access Law.

The reality, according to Reynolds, is that, based on discussions with water law lawyers and hydrologists, the proposed law would have the effect of redefining most of Montana’s rivers and streams as ditches and thus not open to public access. If this sounds surreal, Reynolds adds, “We didn’t dream this up. It’s a real problem.”

This opinion is supported by testimony at the House Agricultural Committee on January 27 by Bob Lane, Chief Legal Counsel of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Lane said, “HB 309 almost completely repeals the public’s right to recreate on rivers and streams: by making any stream or river a private stream or river where the return flows from irrigation are the majority of the flow; and by privatizing side-channels of braided rivers and streams.” Lanes goes on to say “almost all rivers and streams in Montana, except those in wilderness areas and the headwaters of streams on Forest Service land, could no longer by used by the public. HB 309 not only doesn’t work, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Speakers displayed aerial maps of portions of the Big Hole and Jefferson Rivers citing various diversions, head gates and ditches, all representing potential access problems for anglers and floaters. The dam on the Beaverhead River forming Clark Canyon Reservoir was built for irrigation and flood control. Under HB 309, the entire Beaverhead River could be off limits.

An unidentified woman asked, “My brother-in-law owns property on the Boulder River. We camp and fish there. It’s downstream from a diversion structure on other property. Does that mean we wouldn’t be able to use the stream? We couldn’t let our kids play in the water?”

Speakers said her fears were justified.

Is there a need for legislation to prevent anglers from trespassing on irrigation ditches? FWP Counsel Lanes asserts, “FWP recognizes the rights of landowners to not have their property rights burdened by the public attempting to recreate in irrigation ditches. The stream access statute does precisely this and there is no need to clarify its precise language.”

Al Luebeck, a Butte resident and former legislator sees the influence of money. “A lot of ranches are being bought by out of state people and they’re the ones behind this bill.” Noting that the bill passed the House in party line voting, Luebeck suggests, “Ask your Republican friends what is going on. This is a betrayal of Montana citizens.”

Other speakers, including Steve Luebeck and Bob Olson, president of the local TU chapter, both Butte residents, advocate citizen action. Specific steps include contacting local state senators Steve Gallus and Jim Keane, members of the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation committee, as well as all state senators.

Second, they urge a big turnout of citizens before the Senate committee when they hold hearings in room 303 at the state capitol at 3 p.m. on March 8 (subject to change).

For people with a Facebook account, Montana Coalition for Stream Access has created a Facebook page, and changes and new developments will be posted on the page. Chris Bradley of The Stonefly fly shop suggested that people without computer access could contact their store to get the latest news on the bill as well as information on car pools to go to Helena.

Tony Schoonen of Ramsay, a grizzled veteran of the legislative battles to enact the Stream Access Law years ago commented on the law having survived numerous legal challenges, adding, “They couldn’t kill the law in the courts. Now they want to turn all our rivers into ditches. Everybody better get on that Twitter—whatever the heck that is.”

Congress (and Montana Legislature) Against the Public Good

Paul Krugman doesn’t get many mentions in outdoors columns, but it is usually worthwhile to pay attention to what he says. .

Krugman is an economist at Princeton University with a long list of credentials, with a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics at the top of the list. He’s also an op-ed columnist for the New York Times and a voice for rational thought. Last week he commented on the House Republicans’ proposals for cutting spending Federal spending. He writes, “Uncharacteristically, they failed to accompany the release with a catchy slogan. So I’d like to propose one: Eat the future.”

Krugman goes on to explain that while many people give lip service to the notion of cutting government expenditures, it turns out, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center, Americans really want more, not less, spending on most things, including education and Medicare. This leads to the Republicans’ dilemma. They promised to deliver $100 million in spending cuts. “Yet the public opposes cuts in programs it likes—and it likes almost everything. What’s a politician to do?”

Krugman says, “The answer, once you think about it, is obvious: sacrifice the future.” That explains proposed cuts in childhood nutrition programs, nuclear non-proliferation activities, and IRS tax enforcement. Krugman points out that one terrorist nuke assembled from former Soviet nuclear materials could ruin your whole day, and then asks, “Why cut $578 million from the IRS enforcement budget? Letting tax cheats run wild doesn’t exactly serve the cause of deficit reduction.”

Yes, eat the future.

The same thing is happening in the Montana legislature, where legislators want to cut funding for education and tobacco-use prevention, to name just a couple areas.

Yes, eat the future.

Back to the national level, and relating to the outdoors, Ducks Unlimited directs attention to proposed $2 billion cuts in conservation programs including cutting $47 million in funding for North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants. These cuts, according to Dale Hall, the head of Ducks Unlimited, “could imperil waterfowl populations and the future of the waterfowl hunting tradition in America.”

Yes. Eat the future.

NAWCA grants, when coupled with private sector matching funds, is the primary source of funding for the North American Waterfowl Management Plan that generated more than $3 billion in habitat projects across North America the last 20 years. NAWCA grants have helped conserve more than 20 million acres of habitat. The proposed cuts will prohibit Clean Water Act protections in important wetlands, and adversely affect funding for Fish & Wildlife Service land acquisitions for waterfowl conservation.

Hall sums it up, “If these cuts and actions take place, waterfowl, waterfowl hunters and wetlands conservation would lose in a big way…these actions would adversely affect all of us who care about, and have funded, wetlands and waterfowl conservation. We should remember conservation in America pays for itself through the economic return from hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts.”

In short, cuts will harm the environment and wildlife now and our children and grandchildren will pay the price in terms of less waterfowl and other wildlife. Eat the future.

While I’m on a rant I have to comment on one of the worst bills in the current session of the Montana Legislature.

House Bill 309, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Wellborn (R-Dillon) is an example of poorly drafted legislation that has the potential to affect anglers all over Montana.

The bill presumably was intended to reverse the Montana Supreme Court decision of last year, which ruled Mitchell Slough was a side channel of the Bitterroot River and thus open to public access. Unfortunately, the bill, as drafted, would essentially define any waterway that gets irrigation return flows as a ditch and thus not open under Montana’s stream access laws.

Montana anglers screamed foul when the bill became known. Nevertheless, the bill sailed right through the House. Angling and other recreationist groups hope to kill or amend the bill in the Senate. Butte’s representatives in the House all voted against the bill, including, to his credit, freshman Republican legislator Max Yates.

Let’s hope that in 2012, citizens remember legislators who support the common good and those who so cheerfully eat the future.