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.”