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MT Supreme Court hears arguments over Stream Access Law

By Lauren Maschmedt, KTVM Anchor, lmaschmedt@ktvm.com
Published On: Apr 29 2013 06:26:21 PM MDT
Updated On: Apr 29 2013 06:47:11 PM MDT
BOZEMAN, Mont. -

Do Montana's small rivers and streams belong to the public? That's what the Supreme Court is trying to decide.

"Is there some reason why the public can walk and tramp around on their property, simply because water flows over it -- when they couldn't walk in somebody else's backyard?" asked lawyer Peter Coffman.

Some say no, not if the stream bed is technically privately owned.

Coffman and other lawyers from each side gave oral arguments on the appeal to a case that involves access to the Ruby River from a bridge in Madison County.

The landowner nearby doesn't want the public fishing right along his land.

"The way for the state to deal with it is to pay," Coffman said. "The individual property owner shouldn't have to provide a public resource for everybody else for free."

But those for public access say if you can get to the river from a public road or bridge, then the river itself should be fair game up and downstream.

That's how it's currently laid out by the Stream Access Law, passed in the 1980s.

"I think it's vital that it isn't taken away from normal citizens," said fisherman Rod King. King and his friend Tyson Webb attended the arguments because they're concerned over what might happen.

They said rivers should continue to belong to all Montanans. Having them free drives in tourism, they said, and builds the economy.

"I'm a fishing guide so this affects me, or at least my community pretty dramatically," Webb said. "That brings a lot of money to this corner of our state."

And they hope the Supreme Court agrees.

But those who want the public out hope the Supreme Court finds the Stream Access Law unconstitutional, and returns those waterways to the landowners.

Now that they've heard the arguments, the Supreme Court said they'll take a few months to issue a decision.