By Bill Geer, President, Montana Wildlife Federation
Last fall during the political season, everyone running for the Montana Legislature touted their credentials as being for public access.
But what does that really mean? For Montana’s hunters, anglers, hikers, and other outdoors enthusiasts, it means the ability to get to our public lands to enjoy them.
The access to the outdoors that makes Montana such a great place to live also makes it tempting for some people to try to close off public roads. By putting up gates on public roads that lead to public land, they can turn vast swaths of our National Forests, Bureau of Land Management and other public lands into private playgrounds.
Everybody loses when this happens – except for the one person who claims exclusive access to that public land. It harms not only the public who enjoys public land, but also wildlife biologists with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The agency relies on public hunters to manage our public wildlife, and getting hunters on the ground helps get the harvest of deer, elk and antelope needed to meet their management objectives. When someone illegally gates a public road and blocks access for hunting, they are ultimately worsening wildlife concentration problems for neighboring farmers and ranchers.
Under current state law, the fine for gating a county road is $10 per day. That fine might have had teeth when it was set decades ago. But today, it’s not a deterrent to keep people from gating these roads in the first place. Texans and Californians who can afford multi-million dollar vacation homes in Montana would think nothing of paying $10 a day to block public access to public land.
In comparison, the fine for failing to shovel the sidewalk in Billings is initially $300, then $500 per day thereafter. And the fine for letting your sprinkler hit the sidewalk in Helena is $500.
This lack of any teeth in state law results in cases like the Hughes Creek Road in Ravalli County. That public road has been illegally gated for decades, cutting off access to the Bitterroot National Forest. The fact that it’s a county road is indisputable: in 1983 the very same people who blocked it off requested the county abandon the road. Recently the Montana Supreme Court ruled that it’s a county road yet it remains illegally gated.
A simple step toward getting these public county roads opened to the public would be to have a real, meaningful fine in state law. Lawmakers need to increase the fine to up to $500 per day, with no minimum.
This would give county attorneys a powerful tool to address blocked roads, create a strong disincentive to gate roads in the first place, and ultimately improve public access to our public lands.
Every legislator says they’re for public access. Increasing the fine for illegally blocking a public road gives them a chance to walk the walk.