MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer B I L L INGS
Go v. B r i a n Schweitzer signed a bill Monday that reinforces anglers' guaranteed access to public streams, while allowing owners of private property to attach fences to bridges so livestock don't wander onto roads. Sponsored by Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, a Billings Democrat, the bill was intended to resolve a long-running dispute between access advocates and landowner groups. Schweitzer and other supporters said the measure was aimed at out-ofstate landowners who refuse to abide by Montana law allowing anglers to enter streams from public bridges. The issue erupted in 2000 when some landowners in Madison County attached fencing to county bridges. Sporting groups contended the fencing denied them their right to access public waters. "This is in response to some out-ofstate landowners who really don't share our access values. They're trying to shut out the public," Van Dyk said. Prior efforts to address the issue failed in the 2005 and 2007 legislative sessions. Livestock and property owner groups had lobbied against those measures, which were defeated largely along party line votes. But this year's measure passed by large margins in both the House and Senate. It was drafted following negotiations between sportsmen, ranchers, counties and others. "The language didn't change much; what changed was an at t i tude, " Schweitzer said Monday. "They can build that fence. But you have to do it in a way that lets a sportsman get his boat over the fence and to the river." Chuck Denowh, a spokesman for United Property Owners of Montana, said his group backed the measure after it was altered to protect landowners. The bill was amended as it went through the Legislature to clarify that owners generally cannot be held liable for someone using a road right of way for access. "We just wanted clarification that if somebody was injured or if there was an accident, or if a gate was left open and livestock got out in the road, we wanted clarification that landowners would not be held liable," Denowh said. "It's more than just something we can live with. This was a good bill." The governor signed the bill Monday following a short ceremony beside a pond at Riverfront Park in Billings. He was joined by Van Dyk, Attorney General Steve Bullock and several dozen lawmakers, representatives of sporting groups and others.