Commercialization of public resources ensures public will lose

Posted: Thursday, September 11th, 2014 at 11:49 am

Commercialization of public resources ensures public will lose Image

Commercialization of Public resources will ensure the public gets the short end of the stick.

As a follow up to my final river report of the season, I mentioned that if you were interested in the issues I raised you could get more info on our web site so here is what I was talking about.

This issue of change in the west is not new.  For years we watched usage and in particular commercial usage of our publicly owned rivers increase.  In some places like the Bighorn and the Missouri the vast majority of usage is commercial.  Commercial fishing guides taking members of the general public who choose not to own a boat and “do it themselves”.  These folks are routinely guided by individuals who make a living doing it.  I have several close friends who do and in fact our Fly shop has a relationship with an outfitter and it is one of the things we offer at the store.   So the concept of commercial use is not one that gives me all that much heartburn.  Like all businesses conducted on public land however the public interest in managing commercial use before restricting the public is common sense.

Where I struggle is when the commercial interests become so large and powerful that other use (other commercial and Private) starts to get pushed off overtly or in more subtle ways.  In some places like the Missouri, the river simply can handle large numbers of users and crowds don’t have much of an effect on the experience, fishing can remain excellent when crowds are at the worst.

Our local rivers like the Blackfoot cannot handle the same level of crowding and still provide a good fishing experience, different fish populations and different stream morphology simply do not support the numbers of fish and consequently the number of fisherman.

My issue is this.

The Blackfoot is getting pounded hard by one user to the point where the general public and even other commercial interests are not willing to go, because of the over use by one outfitter.  It could be any outfitter but as it turns out having stream side camping is a huge selling feature for a guest ranch, and who doesn’t like camping on the river?

River use along with many other activities is just part of the experience they sell.    While I personally find all the camps adjacent to the river over the top and a huge eyesore I also respect the private property rights of the owners to do what they want as long as it is within the law. I don’t know many folks who like seeing development along rivers but most of us accept it as part of the changes that we all expect to see continue.  Cooperative agreements between interested parties are the kind of thing that help to steer the changes.

The Blackfoot river Corridor agreement was initially signed in 1976 to address a growing use by the public and some poor behaviors by citizens.  The nuts and bolts of it was the public gave up the right to camp on public land, except in established FWP/BLM sites.  In exchange the Public was granted the right to walk the bank up to 50 feet above the high water mark, although only if you walk from a legal access point. Going above mean high water was not allowed if access was obtained by boat, so floating in did not let you use the 50 feet, only walking from access points.  Landowners also agreed to minimize development that visually impacted the corridor, while it was not written in stone many landowners have done an excellent job of working together to benefit everyone!

Fast-forward to 2005 and the agreement was rewritten without public input to accommodate the needs of a new landowner who wanted to restrict use so they could have a more private riverside experience for guests at the new facility.  The leverage the guest ranch uses is that they own the land on which the busiest access is located at Round Up Bridge.

If FWP were to lose that access it could cripple usage in the lower corridor.  While I personally understand the dilemma I struggle with how the outcome changed access for the public.  Now that 50 foot corridor only existed if the land owner wanted it to and they could easily deny access.  No shock that is what has happened, so the agreement reads like “allow access 50 feet above the high water mark, unless landowner doesn’t allow it.

Its all about the private land owner rights, and with a business to operate that needs to keep the public as far away as possible the position is predictable,  I get it, folks paying thousands to camp on the river bank do not really want to be bothered by the “public”.  But why have a corridor agreement that excludes the public and offers only the non-committed continued lease of land for an access?    At this point I think the public might benefit from no agreement, although I recognize the great landowners who have managed the Blackfoot so well for 33 years would lose, and that sucks.

Now we have a couple of new issues to deal with, regarding the use on the Blackfoot.

In addition for plans to build a private  airport to accommodate jets on Nine Mile Prairie (on private land)  we have this new twist happening on land owned by the University.

The University Of Montana School of Forestry owns the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, and part of that land, a 640 acre section, borders the river upstream of Roundup on river left.  The University is cash strapped and is in talks with the guest ranch to lease this entire section of ground to them so they can expand the river side camping experience.  Clearly the ability to camp at rivers edge is a popular attraction for guests at the ranch.  Apparently the current expansive camps are not enough to meet demand, if you have not seen them I’d encourage you to float through the Clearwater bridge to River Bend section and see for yourself.

So the irony here is that land Lubrecht Forest may lease, is land that the University (School of Forestry) has not allowed public camping on by its inclusion in the corridor agreement.  Yep that’s right, land you can camp on is going to be leased to a guest ranch so customers paying thousands a night can.  That is irony…

If you are concerned about the Blackfoot and want to voice that concern I would suggest contacting the university school of forestry dean James Burchfield, President Royce Engstrom,   and the board of Regents to voice that concern that leasing public land to private entities to promote activities they agreed to ban the public from is a bad idea.

I would also encourage you to become involved by commenting to MT FWP regarding any actions on the Blackfoot river that will decrease the public right to access.  This is going to be a long hard fight, and as one friend of mine likes to say, “might as well go down swinging”


There contact info is here

Burchfield, James  Dean of the School of Forestry
Phone: (406) 243-6650
Office: Forestry 108B


This is a link to the Board of Regents

Emails for each member are next to the photos.



If you are concerned about loss of public access in general I would encourage you to Join PWLA

The Public Land and Water Access Association  please check them out


Blackfoot Corridor Agreement PDF


Thanks for getting involved and contact me if you want more info

Todd Frank