One day nearly 20 years ago, Great Falls, Montana, hunter Jim McDermand headed toward a favorite waterfowl destination. To his surprise, he found Boadle Road, which for years had provided public access to a large section of Pushkin Reservoir and the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area, gated and posted. The section of road ran through private property recently purchased by Roger Jones, who had decided to block public access. Before the subsequent legal battle culminated in 2015, Jones had physically destroyed a bridge on the road and lost his case before the Montana Supreme Court four times.
In response to the illegal road closure, McDermand alerted Montana’s Public Land and Water Access Association (known as the PLWA), an all-volunteer, non-profit group born of disputes over access to the state’s famous trout streams during the 1970s. Victory in two crucial river-access court cases in 1984 had led to the Montana Stream Access Law, without which the state’s important outdoor economy might not exist today.
Although PLWA began by fighting for access to public water, it also has worked tirelessly for hunters. More than 5 million acres of state trust-fund land, including some of the best upland game and waterfowl hunting opportunities in the nation, lie within Montana borders. Prior to 1988, the holders of the grazing leases on those lands also controlled the access. Using their own money to cover legal expenses, longtime PLWA members Tony Schoonen and outfitter Jack Acheson provided the impetus to change state law and open those lands to the public. Countless thousands of hunters, residents and nonresidents now benefit from that access every fall.
Montana sportsmen have fought for access to recreational opportunities on public land. Blocked access is an issue across the West.
PLWA has never taken a position in opposition to legitimate private-property rights. It has fought exclusively to maintain established public access to land and water in the public domain. Unfortunately, anyone can place a locked gate across a road, at which point a legal right becomes theoretical until a court affirms that right, while the barrier preventing the public from reaching its own land is real. Unchallenged, the result is a loss of public access, without which hunting and fishing—not to mention the multi-billion-dollar outdoor industry—cannot survive.
The landowner who closed the Boadle Road access didn’t fare any better during his fifth trip to the Montana Supreme Court than he had during his first four. Plainly tired of his defiance of previous rulings, the Court again found for PLWA and ordered the landowner to pay for replacing the bridge he’d destroyed. The court also awarded monetary damages to the state for the years of lost public access and attorney fees to PLWA. Although it required 15 years of litigation, the message was clear: Landowners cannot illegally deny established public access to public resources—at least not in Montana.
Concerned outdoorsmen elsewhere should take note. Six Western states—Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah—contain more than 4 million acres of public hunting and fishing opportunities to which there currently is no public access. The Utah Stream Access Coalition recently won a major victory for fishing access in that state.
In 2015, in light of its accomplishments in Montana, the PLWA was named the recipient of Outdoor Life’s Open Country Award as non-profit organization of the year. For more information, visit www.plwa.org.
—E. Donnall Thomas Jr.