HELENA — The Montana House on Monday rejected a plan that aimed to give hunters and others access at "corner crossings" to public land that is intermingled with private land in a checkerboard pattern.
Hunters and advocacy groups packed the chamber in support of the measure, seeking access to patches of government land that meet at corners. Supporters of House Bill 235 said denying access at such corners ensures that mega-land owners like Ted Turner can lock up blocks of public land.
"This law would no longer criminalize a Montana sportsman from jumping from one corner of public land to another corner of public land," said Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula. "We are talking about hopscotch, folks, leaping from one corner of public property without touching any private land."
Hill said the measure would ensure access to more than 800,000 acres of landlocked public parcels.
Backers, led by Democrats, were trying to get the measure out of a committee where it had been tabled. Republicans used their majority in the chamber to easily defeat that motion. It only received 45 votes, instead of support from 60 out of 100 in the chamber needed to meet a procedural threshold.
Republican critics argued that there is no way to cross at the corners without trespassing, even if a person knows exactly where the property lines intersect. They argued that a person's hips and shoulders would cross the airspace at the intersection of the four corners while hopping between parcels.
"It is not about playing hopscotch, it is about trespassing across private property," said Rep. Jeffrey Wellborn, R-Dillon.
Wellborn said other measures are needed that can be supported by both hunters and landowners.
"I believe this is going to further drive a wedge between landowners and sportsmen," Wellborn said of the corner-crossing bill. "We need to come together, not further drive that wedge between us."
Republicans instead advanced a bill that puts more money into the Block Management Program that pays landowners for hunter access. They said House Bill 404, carried by Rep. Kelly Flynn of Townsend, is one of several measures in the works to improve hunter access.
Democrats argued that it wrongly takes the money from a habitat program and said that payments to Montana farmers won't help gain access to land they argue is mostly locked up in private hunting preserves for the wealthy.
Advocacy and hunting groups coordinated a rally Monday to coincide with the move on the House floor to blast the corner crossing bill out of committee. They were not impressed with the alternate proposal that paid some landowners for access to farm land, which they argued is not generally prime hunting habitat.
Bill Berg, of Lewistown, with the Russell Country Sportsmen, said jumping over an intersection of land at the corners isn't trespass any more than an airplane that flies over.
The advocates promised to keep pushing the issue.
"This corner crossing problem is not going to go away. It needs to be addressed," Berg said.
A few hundred orange-clad hunters packed the House gallery to watch the vote, many standing as the final vote was tallied.
At a rally outside the Capitol after the motion failed, supporters of the measure said the issue was not over.
“We need you guys to start today and not stop,” said Hill. “I think we just changed some mind today in there. Yes, the blast failed, but we are not done.”
She said Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, has a similar bill coming. And even if that fails, she urged the fight to continue.
“I’ll say it right here: Civil disobedience. Get cited,” she said.
A ballot initiative could also be in the making, she said.
Randy Newburg of Bozeman, host of the television program “On Your Own Adventures” and a recent appointee to the board of directors of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the top reason people quit hunting, or never start, is about lack of access.
He and others also disputed the claim by bill opponents that the measure was unconstitutional.
“This is not about the amateur lawyering of legislators,” he said.
Property rights, he said, apply also to the rights of the public to access public property.
He said that as he travels and hunts around the West, people are envious of Montana’s great hunting opportunities.
Three things make that possible, he said: great private stewardship, great public land and wildlife managers and an “informed, committed and passionate” cadre of hunters.
But, he said, outsiders on the “fringe element” of contemporary politics are trying to divide those in what he called “the sanity of the middle.”
“Outsides come here and they buy the votes of the fringe,” he said. “The fringe operators are envious of those of us in the middle. … They wish they could operate in the sanity of the middle. But there’s no money in it. Those of us operating in the middle are not for sale, whether we’re hunters, landowners or anyone.”