Montana’s cherished access to public lands is endangered. We must act now to protect access to the places where we hunt, fish, hike and camp with our families. In addition to restoring the access we’ve already lost, Montana should take the following steps to prevent the loss of additional public access:
The State has relatively little funding dedicated toward restoring, protecting and increasing access to public land. Fully-funding our land management agencies means the hard-working rangers and game wardens who steward our land can survey and mark trails and boundaries, build strong relationships with local landowners and negotiate fair and responsible access, and facilitate the public process necessary when our rights are violated.
Vital federal and state programs that allow strategic land trades and purchases are also essential to restore, protect and improve public access. One of the most important and popular, with a strong record of consolidating public lands and improving public access, is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This five-decade old program uses a portion of the royalties from offshore oil and gas leases to fund parks, land acquisitions and other projects that improve recreational opportunities for all Americans, and has a strong record of improving public access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, LWCF faces an uphill battle and Americans risk losing this important source of public investment. Some states are taking matters into their own hands and establishing their own sources of public funding for trails, parks, natural areas and important public access to existing public lands. Montanans would strongly benefit from federal and state public land access investments.
Hunters, hikers and bikers should always follow the law and respect local landowners. Landowners also must uphold their end of the bargain. In some cases, the financial benefits of providing exclusive access to vast swaths of public land and the wildlife they support are too great and basically go unpunished. At present, the state fine for illegally blocking a public county road is a mere $10 per day (Montana Code Annotated 7-14-2136). This fee is too low to be a real deterrent to prevent this illegal activity.
The State could deter illegal access blocks by establishing a fine of up to $500 per day, with no minimum, depending on a judge’s discretion. The public’s interest is in opening illegally gated roads, and a meaningful fine could help achieve that. Increased fines will not only serve as a deterrent, but could also direct the revenue from the fines to the county where the road is located, providing an incentive to local governments to protect legal public access.
County officials currently bear the onus to reopen illegally gate public roads. Therefore it is imperative to engage local decision-makers as problem-solvers. Providing increased local funding to protect public access is a good start.
Road disputes break out when an entity gates a public trail or road leading to public land. These access points have often been used by the public for decades. In every instance, blocked access points are challenged by everyday Montanans looking to access their public land to hunt, fish, hike or camp.
Even when these public access cases are resolved, they come at a tremendous price to local access advocates who fight lengthy, expensive battles in court. The public should not bear the burden to protect public access alone.
The Montana Attorney General works for all Montanans; our public access to public land represents a threat to all of us. The Attorney General’s office needs to take a more active role in these disputes by filing on behalf of the public when Montanans are being illegally locked out of public land.