Trout Unlimited, one of the nation’s largest and most active conservation organizations, is considering pulling itself out of the debate over public access to America’s rivers and streams.
A proposed TU resolution states: “Involvement in stream access disputes is divisive and a distraction from the mission. ….The proposed amendments would prohibit TU involvement or participation in disputes that pit claims of public stream access against claims of private property rights.”
For some anglers, that move will be seen as cowardice, others will see it as a decision to fight other, more important battles with full-troop strength and without alienating crucial allies. Almost no one, not even within Trout Unlimited, will be pleased with the debate, or the subsequent answers, in part because both are indications of just how difficult it is to accomplish any kind of wildlife or fisheries protection in a world swollen with human beings and their conflicting needs, beliefs, and desires.
Trout Unlimited’s Chris Wood says that the issue of public access to rivers and streams has become an energy sink for his organization, and one that alienates the very landowners that are critical to the efforts to protect and restore fisheries.
“We are at the point of deciding who we are as an organization,” Wood says. “We’ve only had two real access issues come up over the years, and they were extremely contentious. We cannot afford to let this one issue define us. To be effective on any kind of large scale we work with landowners to remove barriers to fish, to restore and maintain instream flows. It is all about habitat, and most of that habitat is on private land. Advocating for public access divides us from those landowners, and if we let that single issue dominate our work, we are not going to be able to accomplish our work.”
The question over fighting for stream access, by conservation groups or anyone else, has become more complex as economic disparity in America has become more intense.
And Montana has become ground zero for the debate. The right to walk along a river or stream and cast for rising trout below the high water line, which is written into Montana law, is certainly one of the most powerful advantages of living in Montana, both in the freedom it offers, and in something less easily defined — a recognition that some things are so beautiful and important that no one should be able to deny them to others. That unique recognition helps define the state, and is one of the reasons so many people across the nation revere the place (and want to move there). But as the state becomes more crowded, that public right, always a delicate balance of goodwill on the part of the public and the landowners, becomes ripe for misuse by people for whom fishing or swimming is secondary to their anger at the wealthy.
“It has become a surrogate for class warfare,” Wood says.
Indeed, it is furious (and seemingly endless) access fights like the one over Mitchell Slough in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley (widely covered here at New West by Greg Lemon and others), that have sucked in Trout Unlimited through its local chapters and helped to drive the new push to abandon the issue. The Mitchell Slough case pitted wealthy landowners like Ken Siebel, Charles Schwab and rocker Huey Lewis against access advocates over a side channel of the Bitterroot River that was, depending on which side you were on, either a natural stream or a man-made ditch. The case has turned into an ongoing emotional and legal tug-of-war: Landowners along the slough argued that what their opponents were fighting for was an expansion of the stream access law that was never intended by those who wrote it — an expansion which violated private property rights.
Fights like those dramatically illustrated that a conservation organization could not afford to involve itself in a battle that began with some local fishermen calling up the newspaper and a game warden and then testing the stream access law by venturing onto the property of Huey Lewis and taking big trout within sight of his windows. It began as a clear case of using the access law as a boot to kick sand in the face of a conservation-minded landowner who had undertaken, at his own expense, work to restore fisheries and habitat on his property.
There were no winners in that fight, and it awakened landowner opposition to stream access laws far from the tiny arena there in the Bitterroot.
The issue continues to surface in policy decisions and this year, the Montana Legislature is trying to clarify the stream access law to keep such fights out of the courts. But even just finding consensus on clarifying the issue is a challenge. One bill, however, Senate Bill 78, does stand a chance of making it to the governor’s desk and would at least clarify how fences are constructed near county bridges.
Chris Wood says, and documents from Trout Unlimited confirm, that the organization plans to work to expand fishing access though incentive programs, among them, using money for restoration in return for access agreements. Documents state that the organization needs to borrow from the model of the Nature Conservancy, or Ducks Unlimited, which work closely with multiple partners and who do not overtly advocate for contentious goals like stream access on private land. But the documents also explain that many Trout Unlimited members will recognize that, without the guarantee that new generations will have a place to fish and wander the rivers and streams, the very future of the organization is at risk.
For one TU member in Montana, it’s not a risk worth taking. “We understand here (in Montana) that TU is involved in numerous issues that are extremely important, and that access is only one of them,” says Marshall Bloom, a longtime TU advocate in the Bitterroot Valley. “But in the West, in the heart of America’s trout fishing, access is inextricably linked to every other element of the TU agenda. You cannot divorce access from any of them.”
Bloom has no patience for the proposed decision by the national board to abandon the access issue. “This decision was made in the shadows by a bunch of East Coast city slickers who caved in to some rich landowners.” Bloom says, “What’s the point of this decision, anyway? Let’s say that Plum Creek Timber was going to give TU $70 million, and then a Plum Creek executive said, “Well, TU’s advocacy in timber issues is detrimental to our timber harvest plans….would TU then stop advocating for forest plans that don’t harm trout or fisheries?”
Bloom says state chapters have not been consulted about the proposal and if the decision is made, it won’t sit well in Montana. “They can reconsider it, or there can be consideration by us to break off and form our own group, ” Bloom says.
The Chairman of Montana Trout Unlimited, Tom Anacker of Bozeman, is more measured in his response, but no less adamant. “We do not agree with this proposal. What brings people to TU is the experience of fishing our streams and rivers, and that experience is what inspires me to do the work that I do. Montana’s stream access law is part and parcel of who we are.” Anacker adds that, in Montana, unlike other states, access is guaranteed by the law. “We want to continue to protect those legal rights,” he said.
And if the National Trout Unlimited decides that is no longer part of the mission? “This is still a proposal. We hope they will not pass it. I will not speculate beyond that.”