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MONTANA- Where the Rivers are Not for Sale…..yet!


There is no question about it. There is a new breed of “rancher” moving into Montana. More likely than not, he only spends a few weeks out of the year in our state, is extremely wealthy, and probably made that money as a highly paid CEO in some sort of financial company. Not your typical old time rancher. He comes with very deep pockets. Almost too deep to adequately express. A lot deeper than the state government of Montana, the entity we rely on to enforce our state’s constitution and our state laws.

This new breed of rancher generally arrives with good intentions. He does a lot of good. He often helps the local people by donating heavily to local community groups and schools. He also comes with a strong conservation ethic. He wants to help the land “recover” from old style grazing practices. He wants to “restore” environmentally degraded streams. He wants to “enhance” the fisheries habitat in our streams and rivers, and the riparian habitat along the banks to benefit our wildlife. He often places a conservation easement on the land to help ease the cost of making such improvements by taking advantage of some tax credits. It’s a strong ethic that accomplishes a lot of good.

But this is not the whole picture. The new ethics, being imported to our state by the super-rich, has some other very important characteristics. It is an aristocratic ethics, at heart. It actually promotes private ownership of our public resources as the best form of “resource management”. The government, after all, is slow and cumbersome in its actions, and continually hamstrung by lack of funds. Not so, this new breed of rancher.

This new conservation ethic also holds the general public in low esteem and considers exclusion of the public a vital part of its efforts at protecting the resource from abuse. They view the public generally as bunch of litterers who will trash the resource if given unfettered access to it. This new breed of rancher places his trust, like the kings and barons of old, in the circle of paid experts, consultants, and advisers that he has gathered round himself to help in his resource management plans. He does not like consulting the public about his actions or meeting any public requirements. And, like the kings and barons of old, he plans to help us with our resources by helping himself to them.

It is this part of the new conservation ethic, the part that wants to own the resources in order to better manage them for us, that is clashing with the very strong Montana ethic of public ownership of our resources, such as our water, fish and wildlife, and public access to them. In Montana, the streams and rivers, the fish and the wildlife belong to the public, not to any particular individual. Our Constitution guarantees it. And a well tested (all the way to the Supreme Court of the U.S.) law, the Montana Stream Access Law, guarantees public access to these resources.

The new breed of rancher would like to change that.

What we’ve got here in Montana is priceless. We are not going to let go of it. We are not ready for the kind of Sherwood Forest style conservation ethic that this new breed of rancher is trying to import.

We would send the same message to this new breed of rancher that Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, did in an interview for the New York Times, “If you want to buy a big ranch and you want to have a river and you want privacy, don’t buy in Montana. The rivers belong to the people of Montana.”


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