Senate Bill 224, sponsored by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, has passed the Senate and been transmitted to the House. Proponents of the bill say it gives county attorneys a tool to prevent public road closures by increasing the fine for illegally gating established county roads. It would increase the fine for an encroachment on a county road from the current $10 per day to up to $500 per day, with no minimum fine.
“For decades, this fine has been so low that it’s simply no deterrent for people to gate off county roads and block off public lands,” Jacobson said. “And when access to our public lands is blocked off, it turns that land into private playgrounds for the lawbreakers who are doing it and the public loses.”
The Montana Wildlife Federation, which supports the bill, claims that hunters, anglers, and other public land users are tired of seeing illegal gates on public roads that lead to public lands. The bill also has support from county attorneys and officials who are caught up in litigation when a road is gated off and becomes the focus of lawsuits.
Two disputes over public road access in the Bitterroot have gotten the attention of the courts recently. The Montana Supreme Court ruled this past summer that the Hughes Creek Road gate, which has blocked public access for over forty years, should come down. In another case on Robbins Gulch Road, no gate has been locked, but landowners have taken the Forest Service to federal court challenging public access on the road. That case is due to be heard in Judge Dana Christensen’s Court in Missoula on March 16.
“Having a real, meaningful fine in state law for gating these public roads will give county attorneys a strong tool to get these roadblocks taken down quickly,” said Erin Arnold, Senior Civil Deputy County Attorney for Gallatin County. “A lot of these cases could be prevented in the first place or resolved quickly if the penalty is a real deterrent.”
“The first step toward keeping public roads open to public use is having some real teeth in the fine,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “Senator Jacobson’s bill will make people think twice before they put up barriers to the public’s legal access to public lands for hunting, fishing, and other uses.”