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Picking portage routes

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In 2003, the Bitterroot River Protection Association (BRPA) asked the Bitterroot Conservation District to grant two portage routes to the Mitchell Slough. Now, six years and mountains of attorneys' fees later, the BRPA may finally get them.

When the BRPA made its initial request, the conservation district punted and left the decision to the Ravalli County Commission. However, later that fall, the district decided that the Mitchell Slough was a humanmade ditch, and not a natural, perennially flowing stream with guaranteed public access. That decision created a legal quagmire. In January 2004, the county commissioners called lawyers from the BRPA and lawyers representing area landowners, and got them to agree to an order to stay the decision until the slough's prickly legal status could be resolved. Last November, the Montana Supreme Court finally decided that the Mitchell Slough was a natural, perennially flowing stream with guaranteed public access, once and for all.

On July 13, Michael Howell, a member of the BRPA, filed a new request with the Ravalli County Commissioners to grant three portage routes to the Mitchell Slough. The routes include one through musician Huey Lewis' land at Bell Crossing, one through businessman Ken Siebel's land at Victor Crossing, and one through the slough's headwaters at Tucker Headgate. Howell says that a portage route would be to the landowners' benefit.

"Right now, there is a right of portage without a route," Howell says. "You can choose any way you want. With a portage route, once it's established, that's what you have to take."

Ravalli County Commissioner Jim Rokosch says that if the BRPA and the landowners can't agree on portage routes, the issue will be sent to a three-person arbitration panel. If somebody disagrees with the arbitration panel, Rokosch says the issue could return to district court.

"This could go on," says Rokosch, "for a while."

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