Two news items caught my attention this week- both out of Montana, neither great for outdoor enthusiasts.
The first: For generations, Montanans have have benefited from the sort of restrictive easements that allow anglers to use bridge crossings as fishing accesses. The same prescriptive easements allow hunters and hikers to use long-standing roads and trails to cross private property and access public lands. If you’ve ever hopped off at a bridge crossing to fish Montana’s scenic trout waters, you’ve benefited from a prescriptive easement. Montana SB 354 would eliminate most of those prescriptive easements, allowing now-public access to be posted as private without any public comment, public involvement, or adjudication process. SB 354 would undermine Montana’s Bridge Access Law, which allows anglers access to miles of stream otherwise out of reach.
Who benefits? Wealthy landowners, often from out-of-state, who wish to either close off access entirely, or charge for the privilege. Remember: Montana’s fish and wildlife are managed by the state, paid for with citizen’s tax dollars. It’s privatization of a public resource.
How can you help? Visit the Public Land Waters Access Association (PLWA). Read up on the issues surrounding public access in Montana. Call a congressman, write the governor, donate money. Talk to businesses in the state- flyshops, outfitters, Simms- make sure they’re aware how important stream access issues are. Make sure they know your dollars will be spent supporting the businesses who support stream access.
The second: Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has suspended 25 native trout restoration projects throughout the state, and it looks like politics is to blame. Montana’s state legislature interjected itself in fish and game management with SB 360, which requires extensive meetings ahead of any trout restoration project which removes fish. Meetings must be completed by June 30th, putting the kibosh on the summer field season, and threatening millions in collaborative funding between organizations like Montana FWP, Trout Unlimited, and others.
It seems innocuous, though an earlier version of the bill would require Montana FWP to provide additional fishing opportunities for every native trout restoration project. Some suggest the move was a nod to Montana’s newcomers, out of state anglers looking for more opportunities to harvest walleye, pike, and other non-native species. But what’s troubling is that fisheries management in the state seems directed by political whims. One trout restoration project still slated for the 2021 field season was given go-ahead not because of sound science, due to outcry from the state’s Outfitters and Guides Association.
Sound stewardship shouldn’t be subject to political whims. Legislatures, swayed by special interests, shouldn’t set the agenda when it comes to fish and game management, or access to the outdoors. What ails Montana ails many states where politics plays too great a role in conservation, and it takes a concerted effort from citizens to turn that tide.