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Montana's new law governing public access to rivers and streams is probably the most lasting action by the 2009 Legislature, Billings lawmakers said Thursday.

Speaking during the Billings Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said Montanans are likely to remember the stream access law authored in 2009 as it sets the rules for accessing rivers via public rights of way along bridges.

House Bill 190 resolved stream access questions related to a 2000 Montana attorney general's opinion. That ruling found that using a county road as an access point from one public right of way, such as a road, to another public right of way, such as a stream or river, is consistent with the public's right to travel on county roads.

However, the law also allows landowners to string fence across the public right of way, something rural landowners said they needed to hem in livestock. If fencing at the bridge makes public access difficult, it outlines a process where landowners are notified and asked to provide access with things such as stiles, gates, walkovers or any other structure that provides reasonable access while still controlling livestock.

If the landowner and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks can't resolve the situation in 60 days, FWP will provide the landowner with options for methods of access. If the landowner doesn't chose one of the options within another 30 days, then FWP can install the structure, providing the materials, installation and maintenance with department or other funds.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings. It passed out of the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support after lawmakers amended the bill to resolve landowner liability issues.

"The stream access issue was a real highlight of this session," agreed Rep. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings.

The luncheon put on jointly by the Chamber and the Convention and Visitors Bureau drew about 35 people.

Driscoll told the crowd that there were the several things accomplished that directly benefit Billings. Among them, Yellowstone County acquired another District Court judge. Public schools received 3 percent increases in basic school funding for each of the nest two years.

Legislators also managed to fully fund a voter-approved increase in children's health insurance offered to families earning up to $55,000 for a family of four.

Essmann said the second lasting piece of legislation in 2009 is a law laying the groundwork for underground storage of carbon dioxide pollution in Montana. Senate Bill 498, by Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, was considered essential by some for allowing coal energy developments to advance in state. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a gas that is a byproduct of coal-burning and other energy plants. Scientists say that CO2 is a major greenhouse gas that causes global warming.

Some, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, have said Montana's vast coal reserves will never be developed on a major scale unless the CO2 emissions from power plants can be stored underground. follow the link in this story.

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