There is legislation under consideration that would undermine one of the most significant conservation programs in American history (see “Bill mires Mitchell Slough,” Feb. 10, 2011). House Bill 309 is a blatant attempt to “define” hundreds of miles of stream channels as irrigation ditches and deny us access to a natural resource Montanans nurtured for a half century.
Exactly fifty years ago fish biologists identified three perils that threatened our rich heritage of rivers and streams: stream channelization, water pollution, and dewatering. Within two years the Montana Legislature passed the first stream preservation act in the nation designed to prevent meandering steam channels from becoming bulldozed flumes. The legislation was signed into law by a Republican governor whose conservative philosophy included conservation.
Cleaning up the water and protecting the amount of water in streams followed. The challenges came in all sizes. In the 1970s, multinational corporations laid claim to the Yellowstone River as part of a potential coal bonanza. The claims would have depleted the longest free flowing river in the lower 48 states. The Legislature responded by placing a moratorium on industrial water permits and rewriting Montana water law with in-stream flow protection. The intellectual and political leadership came from a Glendive-area legislator whose livelihood was irrigated agriculture.
Stream conservation challenges have been met all across Montana from fish passage up the Tongue River to proposals to dam the Yaak. They even included convincing British Columbia not to mine and drill their portion of the Flathead. In the process we became a place of legend. Our waters had magic in their names: the Big Blackfoot, Big Spring Creek, the Big Hole, Madison, Missouri. The list goes on. We labeled them “Blue Ribbon Streams.” How appropriate for the Last Best Place.
Through it all, the Montana courts, and then the Legislature, defined the terms of our access to these waters: They were open to the people. There was to be no privatization of this public resource. Commercial fishing outfitters and individual anglers stood shoulder to shoulder in defense of this common resource and it has worked remarkably well for the last quarter century.
The one exception to this success story occurred when an investment banker, a rock star, and a few others decided they needed to cut the public out. The fight was over access to a slough on the Bitterroot River where the locals had been tossing worms and flies at fish for generations. The people prevailed in preserving public access. The Montana Supreme Court ruled the slough was indeed a natural water body and not an irrigation ditch as these few landowners asserted. Those seeking exclusive privilege to water and fish then brought this bitter fruit from the Bitterroot to the 2011 Montana Legislature. The attempt to legislate restrictions on public access to Montana streams became HB 309. The bill pretends to have something to do with irrigation. It is really all about public access and there is the potential for a damaging outcome given today’s conservative anti-conservation political ideology. Once again, it is time for the people to stand and speak. On Mar. 8 there will be a rally at the Capitol at 2 p.m., before a meeting of the Senate Agriculture Committee at 3 p.m. Be there to make democracy work, and if you can’t come, contact your state senator and respectfully demand a “no” vote on HB 309.