One of the great conflicts playing out across the West is between our use of wildlands and waters, and our efforts to protect them. It stands to reason that the more people you have tromping through a delicate habitat, the less healthy that habitat will be – but of course many would argue that there is little point in protecting something if nobody is allowed to experience it.
Yet the interplay between human access and conservation is often even more complicated than it seems, and nowhere is that more evident then in the increasingly contentious disputes over stream access in Montana – and especially in the long-running fight over the Ruby River.
Montana’s stream access law, among the most liberal anywhere, gives people extensive rights to use rivers and streams up to the high-water mark. Access advocates have been fighting for almost a decade for the removal of what they say are illegal fences along county bridges over the Ruby that keep people off the river. But landowners, notably James C. Kennedy, the chairman of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises and the owner of 3800 acres on the Ruby, say the fences are legal – and that unfettered access to the Ruby would ruin a fragile fishery and a recovering riparian habitat.
Hostilities over the Ruby situation have intensified in the wake of the “float for stream access” that took place July 17; about 50 floaters in canoes and kayaks (including this reporter) climbed the fences in question and enjoyed an altogether bucolic afternoon on the water. But in the aftermath, one A. Reyes, in a letter to the Montana Standard, denounced the floaters as people with “no regard for the environment,” asserting that the Ruby was so low as to be unnavigable and therefore floaters were damaging the river. (Not true: we scraped the bottom a few times in our canoe, mainly due to my lackadaisical steering, but it was certainly plenty navigable.) The letter also attacks float organizer Tony Schoonen in rather nasty terms, and defends Kennedy as a generous steward of the land.
I spoke to Kennedy on Friday, and I also had a long conversation with Bob Butler, who manages Kennedy’s Ruby property. Kennedy and Butler both affirmed that protection of the Ruby fishery was a major concern, and that regular floating and the additional fishing pressure that would be created by more access points would be damaging to the habitat.
“It’s all about access and not about protection of the resource,” Butler said of the recent events. “We wouldn’t even consider fishing the Ruby with water temperatures like this.” Kennedy, he added, had all but saved the Ruby fishery through the drought by releasing portions of his irrigation allocation into the river.
“If the access groups prevail, and if the department (Fish Wildlife and Parks) doesn’t do something to protect these fragile fisheries” than we will all lose, says Butler.
Kennedy defended his actions in similar terms. “I hope people would look at the effect on habitat when you open up places,” he told New West. He predicted that if he loses the fight over access at the bridges, initially there would be a lot more use of the water, “until the fishing was decimated.” The Ruby, he said “is not a floatable river.”
But Dick Oswald, the area fisheries management biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks whose territory includes the Ruby, says there is no evidence that increased public access has had a negative impact on the fishery. “The data we have assembled shows unequivocally that the Ruby is capable of withstanding public fishing pressure,” said Oswald. “Before we sought the access (in a 1996 proceedings which resulted in some public access sites upstream from the bridges) we had ample opportunity to compare reaches of the river that were open with areas under exclusive private ownership, and there was no difference. The fish were not more ample or abundant, nor were there more large fish.”
After the 1996 access agreement, fishing pressure increased substantially, Oswald said, but since that coincided with a period of wet weather the fish counts actually increased dramatically.
“The Ruby already is managed under restricted regulations,” Oswald said. “And it’s mostly a Brown trout fishery, the species that is by far the most resistant to fishing pressure.”
Oswald also said there was no evidence that float fishing was any more disruptive for fish than wade fishing. “I strongly dispute the claim that the Ruby is not sufficiently protected, and that stream access would destroy the fishery,” he added.
Now intelligent and informed people can certainly disagree on issues like this, and I have no doubt that Kennedy and Butler believe what they are saying. Yet this also appears to be a situation where habitat protection dovetails nicely with other reasons for keeping people off the river, i.e. the desire of Kennedy to guard his privacy, and to maintain a unique and uncrowded experience for guests at the exclusive and extremely expensive Crane Meadow fishing lodge on the property.
Crane Meadow, which lies just a few hundred yards from one of the disputed access point at the Seyler Lane bridge, advertises “private water” for the “exclusive use of our guests.” While the Crane Meadow Web site does not refer specifically to the Ruby – and Butler says the lodge guests do relatively little fishing there – it’s only natural that people paying hundreds of dollars a night would rather not share with the public. I know I wouldn’t.
I find this issue especially fascinating because we have not even begun to see the warfare that could emerge over this issue as Montana becomes more crowded. In the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, wealthy landowners and access advocates are battling in court over the Mitchell Slough, which is essentially a spring creek augmented by water from the river. The landowners have spent a lot of time and money restoring it as a fishery, and they don’t want to have hordes marching through their backyards. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of biologically similar situations all over Montana – and more and more of them involve land that is now (or will soon be) the property of wealthy out-of-state landowners. The potential for conflict is obvious.
As a public policy matter, the important thing will be to keep the biological arguments about habitat as separate as possible from the inherent conflict between the stream access law and the private property rights. As Kennedy says, “the people who can make that happen [conservation] are people who are more fortunate.” But if conservation efforts become a tool for the wealthy to protect their own private playgrounds – or are seen that way by the majority of people who are not “more fortunate” – then such efforts are likely to face a grim future.