Ravalli County Commissioners approved three proposed portage routes on Mitchell Slough in a 3-1 vote Oct. 8, adding a calmer chapter to the years-long debate over the contentious waterway.
"It does represent, I think, some progress in terms of reducing conflict and balancing the rights of property owners...with the rights of the public to utilize a public resource," says Commissioner Jim Rokosch.
The approval is welcome news to the Bitterroot River Protection Association (BRPA), which originally requested two of the three routes in 2003. BRPA Secretary Michael Howell says established routes at the three locations should soothe tensions by limiting the number of people portaging across private land.
"That's a win-win deal for both sides," Howell says. "That's a win for the landowners and a win for the recreationists to establish a portage route in an area where there has been some dispute, some animosity, some confrontations."
Landowners contested recreational use of Mitchell Slough for years, claiming the waterway was a human-made ditch. Powell County District Judge Ted Mizner sided with landowners in a 2006 ruling, cutting public access to the slough.
The Montana Supreme Court continued the tug-of-war when it unanimously overturned Mizner's decision in November 2008. Mitchell Slough is now considered a natural flowing stream, and the BRPA filed a new portage request July 13 of this year.
Commissioner J.R. Iman was the sole voice of dissent in last Thursday's vote, citing concerns over the portage at Tucker Headgate–a portage requested by both BRPA and recreationist Scott Blahnik. Iman says the proposal doesn't consider that the irrigation canal accessed by the portage route runs dry in fall and winter.
"My objection is not to the portage routes," Iman says, "except for the fact that at this particular location it should be seasonal."
Landowners and others who disagree with the proposed routes can appeal the commission's findings to a three-person arbitration panel. The appeal period lasts through early November.