- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The 1980s lapel buttons had been stored for years in Tom Bugni’s home, leftovers from a campaign that established a Montana law guaranteeing public access to rivers and streams.

Twenty years later, Mr. Bugni has dusted off the buttons and put them to use again.

The law is still under attack from some private landowners who think streams running through their private property should be off limits to the many rafters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts who flock to the state’s scenic waterways. They say the law violates property rights and increases the risk of environmental damage while serving the special interests of commercial fishing guides.

But people such as Mr. Bugni say that having access to natural resources is their right in Montana — access that some cite as the very reason for living in the state.

“Montana is truly the last best place, not only because of our landscapes but because of what we’re allowed to do on that landscape as citizens of this state,” said J.W. Westman, an oil company worker and avid fisherman.

The law that Mr. Bugni and others helped bring about in the 1980s put Montana out front in the West on the issue of access to natural resources.

The law says that even where streams and rivers flow through private land, they are open to everyone if reached from public property — often a bridge along a public road. The 1985 law was made possible by a Montana Supreme Court decision a year earlier.

“There wasn’t anything constitutional about it,” said Lowell Hildreth, who owned river property when the law took shape and was named in one of the lawsuits that gave rise to it.

This summer, Mr. Bugni retrieved the old Montana Coalition for Stream Access buttons from that 1980s fight and gave them to some of the dozens of people who descended on the Ruby River to reassert the public’s right to be on the water.

They rafted about 10 miles, passing through private land where access to the river is being disputed.

“Some people think they own the streams,” Mr. Bugni said.

One of the high-profile ongoing disputes involves the Mitchell Slough in the Bitterroot Valley in southwestern Montana.

Landowners, among them 1980s rocker Huey Lewis, say the narrow canal is a private irrigation ditch made hospitable to trout only because of costly restoration that landowners financed. Access advocates, with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks on their side, maintain Mitchell Slough is a public stream. About 50 people participating in a 2003 “fish-in” were led to the barricaded water by a legislator and a retired justice of the peace with an emphatic, “Let’s do it.”

Mr. Hildreth said the stream law has increased trespassing and heightened tension between sportsmen and landowners, some of whom have become more protective of their property by placing new restrictions on its use or closing the land completely.

“You stop and think, ‘If they’re going to take my stream bed, I’m going to protect what I can,’” he said.

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