The once-impenetrable fortress of our public-land rights is under siege. To greedy, gluttonous invaders, our lands and our riversare a resource to be grasped, wrenched free, and fed to a distended belly that can never be satisfied. But waters such as the Jefferson River are not to be pilfered for exclusive private use; if we let them thrive in public hands, they will give all of us far more than we can ever take.
As president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Thomas Elpel has spent decades fighting for public access to our land and water, particularly on the Jefferson River. With Beaver Chew closing to the public, and more and more No Trespassing signs popping up along the river, Elpel and other Jefferson River Canoe Trail members recently launched a valiant campaign to find a replacement property. The triumphant result is a new 30-acre access point and campsite at Waterloo Grove, which will be open to everyone, not just a wealthy few. Elpel and his team are working with local residents, neighboring landowners, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to preserve the ecosystem, the history, and the access for camping, canoeing, fishing, and wildlife viewing—activities increasingly hard to undertake along the Jefferson these days.
Members of the Montana State Land Board recently approved the exchange of the state-owned Beaver Chew parcel for a slightly larger space on the Big Hole River. Although the Big Hole is a great place for fishing and floating, it already enjoys abundant access and loads of public land. The Jefferson, by comparison, has relatively few access points and very little publicly-owned parcels along its banks. Nor does the Big Hole serve as a stopping point along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Beaver Chew’s rich history, unique riparian ecosystem, and advantageous access are now in the sole hands of New York billionaire Hamilton James. While we’re sad to see Beaver Chew go, we’re even more disappointed with our Land Board and its members, including Governor Steve Bullock, whose famous “Not on my watch!” public-lands battle cry now rings a little hollow.