Here we go again. If House Bill 309 passes, Montana's 26-year history of public stream access will likely come to an end.
Why? Because a handful of out-of-state landowners along the Bitterroot River don't like the Montana Supreme Court's ruling in the Mitchell Slough case. In that case, the court ruled that Mitchell Slough was a natural stream and not an irrigation ditch as they contended. The court told them the public had a right to access the Mitchell Slough.
In an effort to overturn this court decision, HB 309 was written. Called the "Ditch Bill," HB 309 is a cleverly devised scheme to redefine our rivers, streams and side channels as "ditches" off limits to all public access.
Because of the threat to stream access, the Montana Coalition for Stream Access is once again alive and functioning. We are asking for all of our past and present members to unite once again to push your senator for a "no" vote on HB 309. Large sections of rivers like the Big Hole, Jefferson and Beaverhead rivers could be closed to river recreation due to irrigation infrastructure located in the river channel, if this bill passes.
Legitimate ditches are already clearly "off limits" under Montana's current Stream Access Law. HB 309 adds no new protection to legitimate irrigation ditches and is instead an attempt to gut Montana's Stream Access Law.
What are the implications of this bill? A University of Montana study shows that $168 million is pumped into Montana's economy annually from fishing activities on Montana's rivers and streams.
This includes money spent in hotels, restaurants, sporting goods, gasoline and with outfitters and guides. This doesn't include the millions more spent by non-fishing river users, such as kayakers, canoeists, pleasure floaters or kids in inner tubes - all of which can only recreate due to their rights given them under Montana's Stream Access Law.
If Montana's Stream Access law is gutted, the impact to Montana's economy and way of life will be huge.
River recreationists need to get organized now to kill HB 309. Call and leave your senator a message to vote no on HB 309. In southwest Montana, Sens. Debby Barrett, Steve Gallus, Jim Keane, Gene Vuckovich and Terry Murphy control the future of Montana's Stream Access Law.
The hearing is scheduled for March 8 in the Montana Capitol building. Please attend the hearing and urge the Montana Senate to kill HB 309.
- Tony Schoonen is president, Montana Coalition for Stream Access