Laura Lundquist

A number of roads, streams and bridges throughout Montana might now be closed to the public if not for the work of the Public Land Water Access Association. And the association probably wouldn’t exist if not for the passion of John Gibson. But sadly, Montana lost Gibson two weeks ago when he died in Billings at age 92.

Gibson may have seen out the latter part of his life in Billings, but he had connections to western Montana, having worked for the U.S. Forest Service on the Seeley Lake Ranger District in the 1960s. That’s where he met the current president of the Public Land Water Access Association, Bernard Lea, according to a remembrance that Lea wrote a week ago. They went on to work together for the Lolo and Custer national forests before joining a group formed by fellow Forest Service employee Gene Hawkes, the Public Land Water Access Association or PLWA, in the mid-‘80s.

“When Gene left the organization in approximately 1990, PLWA had a hard time keeping officers and had very few funds in the treasury,” Lea wrote. “Like I have stated several times, ‘we have come a long way.” Through this time period, John and I acted as the leadership. We traded the presidency back and forth because we had a hard time keeping things running.”

But they kept the organization afloat, and now it’s racked up several victories for public access. For almost 40 years, the PLWA has helped locals preserve access to many favorite hunting and fishing spots that were threatened by out-of-state landowners gating roads and blocking trails. Often, new landowners don’t know of or refuse to recognize public rights-of-way leading to public land that may cross their property.

Currently, PLWA is working on 20 separate access issues across the state, such as working with other organizations to preserve public access on the east side of the Crazy Mountains. Closer to home, PLWA is monitoring Mineral County’s efforts to reopen Cyr Iron Mountain Road on the Lolo National Forest near Superior and recently worked with the Forest Service to reopen Elk Meadows Road across Lolo Creek after a landowner tried to fence it off.

PLWA also went to court in October 2021 to remove an obstruction across Hughes Creek Road, recognized as a county road in Ravalli County, although the county refused to enforce the public access. A district court judge backed PLWA’s arguments.

Gibson served as president of PLWA for over 20 years and was instrumental in the stream access victory on the Ruby River and the Bridge Access Law.

In 2004, billionaire James Cox Kennedy, an out-of-state landowner, tried to eliminate fishing access to the Ruby River by fencing off the abutments of three bridges on his property. PLWA filed a lawsuit against Madison County for not recognizing and enforcing the public right-of-way and a judge ruled in favor of PLWA for two of the bridges. The Bridge Access Law, passed in 2009, put the judge’s ruling into law.

When asked in 2013 about Montana’s enviable stream-access law, Gibson told the Great Falls Tribune, “Public water runs through private land throughout our state. The Montana Supreme Court saw fit to allow the public to enjoy the use of their water along with their fish by allowing anglers and others to move up and down the stream below the high-water mark. The court applied this to all streams in the state large enough to support water-based recreation. The Legislature of 1985 passed legislation consistent with the court’s findings. Perhaps those who are unhappy with this situation should move to another state.”

As news of Gibson’s passing got out, many conservation groups and politicians voiced their sadness and remembrances.

Gibson supported several Montana hunting and fishing organizations, including the Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance. Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance member JW Westman of Laurel said he could not remember Gibson without thinking of Gibson’s wife, Carol, by his side. While in Billings, Carol served in the Montana State Legislature and John became President of the Billings Rod and Gun Club. They were inducted together into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2020.

"Stream access, the public trust, or the North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, John and Carol were there speaking in favor. They were cornerstones of Public Land and Water Access, Montana Sportsmen Alliance and the Montana Wildlife Federation to name but a few. They were always there with sound advice, sage wisdom, and strong rational opinions. Their voices often carried the day,” Westman said in a social media post. “John and Carol were steady supporters of core Montana values: truth, transparency in government, and a fair shake for the ordinary among us were quite possibly the larger of their life support and contributions.”

Others also spoke of Gibson’s honest and steady nature.

“What a loss for Montana. He lived a good life. And left a legacy of service to Montanans, whether rich or poor, of access, opportunity and honest governmental decision making,” said Dan Vermillion, former Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioner chair.

Gibson was an avid bird hunter. Lea said that’s how Gibson met and got to know so many sportsmen across the state, including Rep. Tom France of Missoula who enjoys hunting pheasants in eastern Montana.

“John’s focus on and passion for public lands and public access truly created a legacy that will benefit Montanans for generations. Just as Jim Posewitz is remembered through a public fishing access site, John deserves a similar memorial,” France wrote.