Saving a Montana ethic.
You may not know it, but your rights are being eroded.
We visually understand ground erosion, the damage to the land and water. Yet how many people perceive access erosion when fishing or floating a river, as a landowner locks us out, like Georgia billionaire James Cox Kennedy has been doing on the Ruby River for over ten years? How many of you noticed the erosion on Forest Service Rd. 166B, north of Big Sky, when Texas millionaire Stan Schlueter built his 8,000-square-foot home and garage on it, cutting off access to public land? Did you notice when Montana’s former Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Congressman, Denny Rehberg had “Private Property” signs posted on our State Trust Lands? Perhaps you noticed your hunting access was lost on the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, after Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) did not renew the grazing lease of William Foley II, another Texas billionaire? He just bought land further down the road, with no public easement, gating and locking it in retaliation.
If you didn’t know that Swimming Woman Rd., south of the Big Snowy Mountains, was a county road, you might not have noticed that your public-access rights were further eroded when the Wilks brothers, two more billionaires from Texas, bought land and put an illegal “Private Property / No Trespassing” sign on it.
This access erosion is occurring all across Montana. FWP’s Dick Oswald states, “Some landowners are erroneously trying to lay claim to a public resource. I suspect they didn’t do their homework before they bought land. This is America, not feudal Europe.” The European model differs from the public-trust North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, now being called the “Montana Model of Wildlife Conservation,” because not all of North America practices it—just look at game-ranching in Texas, where there is precious little public land and almost all hunting has been reduced to a commercial enterprise where one must pay to play.
You don’t have to be from out of state, nor a billionaire, to block access to streams, federal or state public lands, or public roads. Private landowners from all economic backgrounds can erode your access rights. Regardless of their motives, we lose if we don’t fight back.
The access we currently enjoy was negotiated with landowners and fought for by sportsmen like Tony Schoonen and Jack Atcheson from Butte; hunting and angling groups like Skyline, Anaconda, or the Russell Country Sportsmen; and access coalitions like Montana Coalition for the Appropriate Management of State Trust Lands and the Public Land/Water Access Association.
How will you treat this extraordinary gift? Will you stand by and watch as it continues to erode? Or will you step up, responsibly and consciously voting for public officials who defend your Public Trust? Will you join the fight for this and future generations of recreationists, reminding newcomers that this is Montana, not Texas?
Kathryn QannaYahu runs Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife & Habitat. Find out more at emwh.org.