Polls consistently show that Montanans support public lands and access to them. And yet the 2019 Montana Legislature consistently opposed bills to improve access and supported bills that reduce it.
Of the four bills that would have improved access, three died. Meanwhile, the anti-access bills, HB 550 and HB 265, garnered more support. Luckily, HB 550 died on the Senate floor after massive action was taken by Montana’s hunters and anglers.
But sportsmen and sportswomen are deeply disappointed that the Legislature passed HB 265, sponsored by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman. This came despite strong opposition to the bill from sporting organizations representing tens of thousands of hunters and anglers, and only support from the anti-access United Property Owners of Montana, the Secretary of State and Representative White himself.
HB 265 would require the state Land Board to approve conservation easements under Habitat Montana. Despite a three decade record of protecting vital winter range for big game, providing public hunting access and opening access to a lot of adjacent public land, the Land Board last year injected politics into Habitat Montana. It indefinitely delayed for no reason the Horse Creek Complex easement near Wibaux, jeopardizing a family ranching operation and a total of 20,000 acres of permanent public hunting access in prime habitat.
That was just one bill affecting access this session. The Legislature also rejected two bills that could have improved public access to public lands by addressing the thorny issue of gated county roads that lead to public land.
SB 301, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, would have required that anyone seeking to put an encroachment on a county road go to the county commission first. That would create a public process and justification for gating a road, and require transparency. And SB 224, sponsored by Sen. Tom Jacobson, would have increased the fine for gating an established county road from the current $10 per day. The bill originally raised the fine to up to $500 per day, but was amended in the Senate to up to $80 per day – which made it an inflationary adjustment from the mid-1960s when the fine was set.
The bills were supported by the Montana Association of Counties, county attorneys who deal with gated county roads regularly and the hunting and angling community. Those bills died in the House Judiciary committee, and a floor vote to revive SB 224 failed in the full House largely along party lines.
It’s unfortunate that the Legislature didn’t pass these reasonable bills to address the issue of people who illegally gate off county roads. In doing so, legislators ignored tens of thousands of Montana hunters, hikers and recreational users who love our public lands and know that accessing them is important.
Everybody touts their access credentials, but this session showed that while Montana continues to struggle to get ahead of blocking people from getting to their public lands, the Legislature was willing to threaten our best access program, Habitat Montana.
We’re hopeful that SB 341 will pass, but already we are seeing some people in the Legislature try to derail that effort with unnecessary amendments to try and stall the progress of the bill. Access shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Hunters, anglers and recreationists don’t want political divides to stall good bills. We want our elected representatives to listen when we show up to oppose or support bills, and not just hold perfunctory hearings with pre-determined outcomes.
Harvey Nyberg is a retired wildlife biologist and a board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation.