Keeping the Public on Montana Public Land and Water. (Now and Forever!)

plwa_logoThe Public Land and Water Association is to heartily congratulated on the victory in the Montana Supreme Court opinion in PLWA v. Madison County.  The precedent-setting decision assures us all of continuing access to Montana’s public waters. They did all the heavy lifting in the case. Montana TU filed an amicus brief in support and Flathead TU would like to thank PLWA for all their hard work on this case. Here is the note from PSWA on the case:

Resounding victory for public access

On January 16, 2014  the Montana Supreme Court overturned a lower court and assured public access to the Ruby River from bridges on land owned by Atlanta media mogul James Cox Kennedy. The decision sets a precedent that validates all Montana stream and bridge access laws. The Court affirmed a previous decision that  two of the county road bridges – Duncan Road and Lewis Lane – have a 60-foot wide public easement intersecting the high water mark of the river. This is the decision that led to the Montana Bridge Access law.

What’s new is  that the court essentially threw out the District Court ruling on the third bridge – a bridge on the Seyler lane  road . The lower court had mistakenly ruled   there was no recreational  access on the bridge because it was on  a road created by prescription or regular public use  and recreational use was not a basis for creation of the prescriptive  right -of- way.

On Seyler Lane, the case was sent back to District Court with instructions to determine the width of the public road right-or-way which had been established by prescriptive use. Significantly, the Court held that once a prescriptive easement is established, access extends to all public uses including recreational use.

The Supreme Court justices rejected the District Court ruling that a secondary easement off the travel way existed only  to accommodate maintenance by state and county crews and recognized recreation travel as a legitimate use to help qualify a road for prescriptive easement status.

The Court also emphatically upheld Montana’s stream access law, stating “that the State owns all the waters in trust for the People . . . and that a riparian owner takes his property interest subject to a dominant estate in favor of the public. ”

John Gibson, President of PLWA, stated “Today’s ruling from the Montana Supreme Court confirms once again that our streams are public resources, and not the exclusive playgrounds for the select few. The public’s right to wade or float any river or stream in the state has been recognized, as well as the right to access those streams at bridges crossed by public roads. We want to thank Montana Trout Unlimited and the Montana Wildlife Federation as well as our loyal members for their contributions. ”

“We have been involved in this case for over ten years and this decision has justified our efforts,” Gibson says. He went on to say that “Much of our success is due to the great work of the Goetz Law Firm in Bozeman who lead us thru the legal maze surrounding access to the public waters of Montana.”

Resounding Victory indeed! Thanks again to all the good folks at the PLWA.


People can calm down

So, the story goes like this; Back in February, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no such thing as a “navigable river”, just bits and pieces of navigable water spread around Montana between the land of rich corporations. Quickly following the decision, wealthy landowners around the Treasure State put their not inconsiderable legal resources to work to figure out a way to use the SCOTUS decision to make themselves even richer.

In the latest example, multi-millionaire James Cox Kennedy and his team of ace attorneys decided that he now owns the bed of the Ruby River where it runs through his hobby ranch.

“In his lawsuit filed in Virginia City, plaintiff Kennedy alleges that the state of Montana has no jurisdiction over non-navigable waterways (such as the Madison and Ruby) and that denying him (and previous owners of his ranch property) ownership of the river bed constituted an unconstitutional taking.”

You can read all about the sordid affair on Chi Wulff, but try to keep your blood pressure down. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Here is the response from Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director, Bruce Farling:

People can calm down. The stream access law in Montana is NOT jeopardized by the Kennedy bridge access case. Here are the facts: Kennedy intervened a number of years ago in litigation between the Public Lands and Water Access Association and Madison County. The case involved whether the easement across three bridges on the Ruby River on COUNTY roads in which Kennedy owned the land on either side allowed recreationists to slip into the river at the right-of-way. Madison County had a hard time making up its mind on the issue, and had not enforced the public’s ability to use a right-of-way for recreation when Kennedy constructed concentration camp fencework at the bridges (including hot wire). Kennedy intervened in the case, saying the public was trespassing at these sites, claiming the rights-of-way were the same width as the bridge. Eventually, the court on summary judgement said the facts demonstrate that the public rights-of-ways on two of the bridges were wider than the bridges themselves, and therefore the public could legally use these areas for access. This type of right of way has long been legal as an access point to streams in Montana, and it was further affirmed by an Attorney General opinion and when TU led the effort to pass a bridge access bill in the 2009 Legislature. The court did not rule on the third bridge on the Ruby at Seylor Lane because the claim for public access to the river at this site is based on a prescriptive easement, that is an easement established by historical use. And so resolution of this issue is currently in trial. The arguments surround the facts as to what has been the legal, historical use at this bridge. Therefore the case affects what constitutes the rights-of-way at this bridge. It does not implicate the stream access law, which is a totally different area of law. However, yes, Kennedy’s lawyer, Colleen Dowdall of Missoula, filed a supplemental argument in the right-of-way case citing the Supreme Court’s decision in the PPL v. Montana case, claiming the findings there invalidate the constitutionality of Montana’s stream access law. Two problems for Kennedy, however: 1.) the Supreme Court did not invalidate the stream access law. In fact, it wasn’t implicated in the PPL case at all, and his lawyer is really stretching things. That case solely dealt with what constitutes “navigability” for commercial purposes at the time a state entered the Union, which is the test for who owns riverbeds in most states. If deemed navigable for commerce at statehood, the state owns the riverbed between the lower water marks. If not navigable for commerce, it’s a little unclear who the Supremes then think owns the riverbed (they kind of imply in their decision it is the federal government, but in practice in Montana it will probably be the owner of the adjoining riparian property. They are the heirs of the patent given originally by the federal government). The PPL case dealt solely with ownership because the utility did not want to pay rent to the State of Montana for occupying a public riverbed with its dams. That was the nut of the case. However, and this is important: Use of streams for recreational purposes in Montana is not predicated on riverbed ownership. According to our stream access law, twice upheld by the state Supreme Court, the public is entitled to recreate on any natural stream in our state, irrespective of who owns the bed and banks, as long as the stream is capable of supporting recreation and you stay within the normal high-water mark. The U.S. Supreme Court changed none of that; and, 2.) Kennedy’s lawyer is trying to mix right-of-way issues over a county bridge with the a claim about the stream access law not being constitutional. These things don’t quite mix in terms of legal theory to get Kennedy what he wants. She seems to be taking the PPL case and throwing it at a wall and hoping something sticks. It won’t. The attorneys for PLWA in the Madison County bridge case are the best public access lawyers in Montana. They agree: The PPL decision did not affect our stream access law (in fact, the Supremes sort of imply that strongly in their decision). And thus, to insert it into the bridge case to undermine stream access, or right-of-way and easement law, or whatever this attorney is trying to do, is not particularly productive. But when you have a client with tons of money, why not let him pay for far-fetched legal theories? After all, it means more billable hours. All this said: Get used to seeing more long-shot legal theory based on the PPL case and other cases wherever well-heeled landowners want to keep the public off of rivers and streams. Some of these guys are persistent and stubborn. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are right.

Montana TU is keeping tabs on all this stuff. By all means circulate this note to other outlets.


Bruce Farling, executive director
Montana Trout Unlimited