The Montana House on Friday approved legislation that would make outlaws out of everyday Montanans who fish, boat and swim.
Sponsored by Rep. Jeff Wellborn, R-Dillon, after being requested by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, House Bill 309 would classify as "ditches" many natural stream channels in the state — places where Montana families have been recreating for generations. Montana's stream access law allows us to fish or swim in any natural stream or river capable of supporting recreation — as long as we stay within the normal high-water mark and off adjoining private land.
However, the access law also, reasonably, prohibits public use of bona fide private ditches, such as those constructed off-stream by Montana irrigators. This law resulted from careful negotiation in the mid-1980s between river users and landowner groups.
HB309 undermines our balanced stream access law by classifying as "ditches" natural streams that have been modified by irrigators, such as channels that have been manipulated by irrigation control structures. Also qualifying as "ditches" would be natural stream reaches that include flows augmented by irrigation water that was diverted from the channel, but returned to the stream farther down stream.
HB309 would turn kids who swim in the side channels of Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula or Fleshman Creek in Livingston into trespassers — no matter that families have recreated in these natural stream channels for generations. Public use in these waters and many others will be outlawed simply because years ago irrigators were allowed to control flows in these channels using diversion structures.
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If this bill passes, it would be illegal for you to fish, swim or float without permission in many popular waters simply because they've been modified by an irrigation structure or include return flows. This list includes mainstems or side channels of the Beaverhead, Milk, Big Hole, Yellowstone, Jefferson, Bitterroot, Gallatin and upper Clark Fork, and most if not all streams and natural sloughs in irrigated areas. If the bill passes, families, anglers, floaters and guides would be kicked off hundreds of miles of streams we have been using since Montana became a territory.
Angling, much of it on streams, generates $300 million to Montana's economy. Our nationally acclaimed stream and river fishing has long been a carrot for business people locating in Montana. How does it help the state's economy when you kick anglers off our streams?
Montanans have long accepted irrigators using rivers and streams. That's because agriculture is important to the state, and because ranchers and farmers are our neighbors, friends and family members. If HB 309 passes it would harm the economy and our way of life, and it would unwittingly pit everyday Montanans against ranchers and farmers. Why would a legislator want to do that?