MISSOULA – The Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana will host a special gathering to commemorate Montana’s extraordinary Stream Access Law. “Celebrating a High Water Mark: A Montana Stream Access Law Symposium” will take place 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, at the Blewett School of Law.
In 1984, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in two separate cases that the public trust doctrine and the Montana Constitution protect the public’s right to use Montana waters for recreational purposes. Subsequently, the Montana Legislature adopted Montana’s Stream Access Law, giving Montanans robust recreational access to rivers and streams for fishing, floating, swimming and other water-related activities.
Passing this bill was no small feat. With Bozeman attorney Jim Goetz at the helm, members of the Montana Coalition for Stream Access filed a lawsuit against landowner Dennis Curran in 1980, asserting that the public had the right to float, fish and recreate between the high-water marks of the Dearborn River. The coalition also filed a complaint against landowner Lowell Hildreth, asserting recreational rights on the Beaverhead River. Both landowners had denied public access to sections of the rivers running through their respective properties.
Three years later, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of recreational use in both cases. Following the decisions, a coalition of groups representing landowners, agricultural interests, conservationists and recreationists worked together to draft House Bill 265. Commonly known as the Stream Access Law, HB 265 was passed by the Legislature in 1985.
“In Montana, the waters of the state are held by the state in a sacred public trust, for the benefit of all its people,” Goetz said. “The ability of all Montanans to use our wonderful rivers and streams is woven into our very fabric. I am proud to have played some small role in making sure those public rights are forever protected.”
Goetz will open the March 16 event by telling the story of events leading up to the Curran and Hildreth decisions. Gov. Steve Bullock will kick things off with welcoming remarks, followed by a roundtable of drafters and stakeholders who crafted the original stream access bill. Legislators and representatives from key organizations such as the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Boone & Crockett Club will share key memories and lessons, including what ingredients catalyzed their decision to work together and what attributed to their success.
Helena attorney Ron Waterman, who represented the Stockgrowers Association in the stream access negotiations, will moderate the roundtable.
“Montanans value their rights to access the public waters of the state and are prepared to vote to defend those rights,” Waterman said. “However, many citizens are not aware that this law was not always the codified law of Montana; nor do they realize how the law came into being. This fact – plus the fact that many people involved in the creation of this law are starting to pass away – means the time is right to preserve this important information; the symposium and the roundtable are a step in working to preserve this information for future generations.”
Additional panels during the event will cover subsequent developments in stream access law, the legal ethics of advising landowners and recreation clients, and issues on the horizon such as climate implications, the role of tribal water governance and instream flow.
Admission to the event is free to the public, with an option to purchase lunch. The registration fee for lawyers seeking Continuing Legal Education credits is $40. For more information or to register, visit www.umt.edu/montana-stream-access.