For Montana's public land access coordinator, there's plenty

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Problems with locked gates, closed roads keep access coordinator busy

02/07/02

By SCOTT McMILLION, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Michael Downey isn't worried about working himself out of a job anytime soon.

His role is to increase, secure and improve sportsman access to public lands in Montana.

There are a lot of problems with locked gates and closed roads out there. But Downey, the statewide access coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says there are solutions too.

Easements, purchases, better maps and signs, building both fences and relationships. All of these can help. Downey is trying to use all of them around the state.

"Our tool kit is full," he said in a recent interview.

Sometimes, the solution is as simple as installing a cattleguard.

One of the most common complaints from landowners who allow public access across their property is that people often leave gates open, letting the cows wander.

Since Downey assumed his position, he said he's learned that one easy and inexpensive solution to that problem is to dig a hole and install a cattleguard.

"Everybody's happy," he said of that example. "Sometimes, there's a simple solution."

However, sometimes there isn't.

And that's where FWP isn't coming through, according to Bill Fairhurst, a former Three Forks mayor and a public lands access advocate for 35 years.

"In my opinion, it's mostly political eyewash," Fairhurst said of Downey's program, created two years ago after the Montana Legislature toughened trespass laws, putting the burden of proof on the public instead of landowners. "I don't think anything's going to come of it."

The issue of public access to public land has become politicized all over the West, Fairhurst noted, with Democrats pushing for more access and Republicans passing laws that restrict it.

Fairhurst, a staunch Democrat, is past president of the Public Lands Access Association Inc., which has been involved in a number of legal battles to open roads and trails. Often, the issue involves somebody with an outfitting operation who profits by keeping the public away from its own land. Those people don't give up easily, Fairhurst noted. Yet FWP, which operates on sportsmen dollars, has never entered a courtroom to fight for access.

Downey, who is the first person to fill his position, agreed that FWP stays out of the courtroom.

"The department's not going to take anybody to court," he said.

Rather, he helps FWP biologists, managers and wardens around the state use other tools to fix problems. Part of his job is to find out what worked in Broadus, for example, and see if it can be made to work in Superior.

He acknowledged that progress isn't coming as quickly as some people had hoped, but he pointed to several success stories.

In southeastern Montana, state and federal workers cooperated to travel county roads and mark the boundaries of public land, property that often lacks a fenceline between it and the private land next door. That program keeps honest hunters from becoming unwitting trespassers.

North of Helena, a public road through a small subdivision has been rerouted and a permanent easement established.

Near Dillon, Downey is working on a project that would abandon a road with unproven public ownership now in a creek bottom. The rancher gets that land, state and federal officials provide money for surveying and a new road will cross the ranch but stay away from the creek.

North of Belgrade, FWP is working on plans to build a parking lot at the North Cottonwood trailhead.

All over the state, people are using roads and trails across private land that they assume are public, Downey said, but often there is no proof of that one way or another. FWP is involved in a number of projects to "perfect" the access and avoid future problems.

Traditionally, the issue usually doesn't come to a head until somebody locks a gate.

"There's nothing in the law that stops anybody from putting up a gate and saying 'take me to court,'" Downey said.

When that happens, counties, the federal government or groups like PLAAI often head to the courthouse.

Fairhurst said he'd appreciate some help from the state.

Such cases cost between $15,000 and $20,000 to pursue, and there are lots of them around the state.

Downey said he sees more potential in cooperating with landowners, especially the ones who allow public access now, and making sure it's there in the future.

"It's a matter of identifying those people you can work with," he said.

Downey said nobody has been able to add up just how much public land in Montana is inaccessible.

"I don't think we've gone through a formal enough planning period to give a good answer to that question," he said.

While groups like PLAAI and other government bodies often swing big legal sticks, Downey said FWP will focus on cooperation, not litigation.

"It's something we've got to keep chipping away at," he said. "This job will never be done."

Scott McMillion is at scottm@gomontana.com
 

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