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Vilifying, suing Montana ranchers no way to improve access


“Respect for private property is essential to Montana’s outdoor way of life …”

So says a report published by Montana Wildlife Federation and its affiliate, Public Land and Water Access Association.

Montanans would be better served if MWF and PLWA actually demonstrated some respect for private property rights, rather than paying lip service to it while agitating for the confiscation of thousands of acres of private land every year through questionable political and judicial means.

Case in point: The purported Bullwhacker Trail in the Missouri River Breaks.

A ranch family had been granting permissive use of their private road to access public land in the breaks under certain restrictions, like “stay on the road” and “no travel when road is wet.”

But permissive use wasn’t good enough for PLWA.

PLWA followed their standard playbook. They went to an all too willing media to rail against the “terrible” people who had “locked up” public ground. After this divisive (and untrue) narrative was parroted by the media, PLWA went to the county attorney, shouting this is a public road. Their members and affiliates shouted it is a public road. And the county attorney declared it a public road. (One problem; county attorneys are not authorized to “declare” a road public.)

At the end of the day and thousands of the rancher’s hard earned dollars later, the court vindicated the private landowners. This was a private trail, not the public road that PLWA and its “historians” and “lawyers” shouted to the world that it was supposed to be. Not surprisingly, the final cost of this attack on private property by PLWA was the loss of the permissive use for all the public. Thank you PLWA.

PLWA jeopardizes relations between private landowners and public sportsmen, threatening sportsmen access to private lands as well. Consider that the next time PLWA asks you for a handout.

In this state public ground is outnumbered 2:1 by private ground. Private land is precisely that. No one is under any obligation to donate their property to provide access to public lands.

Urban residents get that. They’re not obligated to allow public travelers in their towns to enter their yards and homes simply because they are public travelers. It’s the same across our countryside.

But the fact is, history and the law have dealt us a tough hand when it comes to public lands access.

Many of us are familiar with the public-private “checkerboard” of lands that lie along the original railroad routes that served Montana territory. Congress provided no easements across private land to assure public travel to and among the public sections.

And our school trust lands? Two sections of every surveyed township were set aside for school trust use, with no provision made for public access to them.

MWF/PLWA won’t tell you that access issues are complex, resulting from the legal, historic and cultural ways the West was settled. Their agenda is to vilify targeted landowners in the media, the Legislature, and in courtrooms.

Nor will MWF/PLWA tell you that government already has the power to solve any and all access issues involving private property with the stroke of a pen.

Government is endowed with the power of eminent domain; “the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.” If the public need is there, taxpayers must only compensate private landowners for the fair value of the land the public wants to confiscate.

Shame on MWF and PLWA for over-simplifying and overstating these issues to bring ridicule on targeted landowners.

Mark Robbins is the president of United Property Owners of Montana.

access, corner crossing, roads