Like most Montana hunters, I depend heavily on state land to fill the freezer every year. This year, I shot my whitetail buck on the same rich piece of state land near Bozeman where I took a doe last year, and I know—because I saw through my binos, and in the parking area—that at least a half-dozen other people took deer out of that section this year, too, and that's just on the handful of days that I hunted there. On the other side of the road from the very same section, I have killed pheasants, ducks, and geese on state land. It's a ridiculously fruitful bit of acreage surrounded private ranches that outfit and don't allow public access—and thirty years ago, it might've been flagged with orange paint at the gates and corners, off limits to me or any other members of the public. These days, I don't know how I'd manage to hunt whitetails, elk, or birds without unrestricted access to state land. And it's not just because the state sections themselves are honey holes. I often use state land as a bridge to get onto National Forest and BLM land, too. This year, during a shoulder season elk hunt, I spotted a group of cows a couple of miles away on the private ranch that I had permission to hunt—but the only way to the approved area was to cross a state section. If that state section had been closed to me, my meat inventory for 2017 would be a couple hundred pounds lighter. My mind reels considering how much that organic, free-range game meat is worth in dollars. And of course, the value of the hunting experiences is incalculable.
I learned the history of the Montana Stream Access Law last year while helping Backcountry Hunters & Anglers produce their Stream Access Now campaign. The creation of the law, which is a paragon of pro-access legislation, would have been inconceivable without the years-long legal battles waged by a Montana-based group that eventually came to be known as the Public Land and Water Access Association (PLWA). They've been in the Montana news lately because they just won a major access victory in the Montana Supreme Court against media baron James Cox Kennedy, who has been trying for years to block hunters and boaters from floating the Ruby River where it passes through his ranch near Twin Bridges.
The current issue of the PLWA newsletter arrived the other day, and I was stunned to read about how PLWA and other groups fought to open up State School Trust sections to public recreation. I learned that there was a time not so long ago, from the sixties into the early nineties, when grazing lessees could prohibit hunting on their leased state land, which often meant they'd ban the public and then use the state sections as cherry spots for their friends and families, sometimes even selling access. Lessees were authorized to post their grazing leases with orange paint and no trespassing signs. Little by little, PLWA and similar groups found allies in the Montana legislature and government who pushed through legislation that chipped away at lessee's stranglehold over their leased land.
Now, we don't need to ask any lessee's permission to walk onto a school trust section to hunt, fish, birdwatch, ride horses, or recreate however we please, so long as we obey applicable FWP regs. However, as PLWA's recent newsletter points out, our right to recreate on state land isn't as protected as our stream access rights:
"There are still implementation issues with recreational access on State trust lands, as well as the original conflicts . . . A Recreational Inventory of State lands has not been produced and the person in charge of recreation is the ag/grazing management administrator. Far too many public recreationists are unaware of recreation opportunities on State lands, or holding State Trust Lands management accountable or standing firm for those hard fought rights."
Throw a donation to PLWA for the hard work they do to ensure that our state's public land and access history isn't forgotten, and that new challenges are met head-on.