In Montana the streams belong to the people. So far.

Montana, home to some of the world’s best fly fishing, is also home to the country’s most far reaching law protecting their stream and river commons.

The catalyst was a 1984 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court that any river or stream capable of being used for recreation purposes such as fishing and floating, can be used by the public regardless of whether or not the river is navigable and who owns the streambed property.  The 1985 Montana Stream Access Law codified that ruling.

Ever since that Law was passed, wealthy, mostly out of state landowners and large fishing guide companies have fought to overturn it.

John Holt, author of Yellowstone Drift gives provides an excellent overview of the situation in CounterPunch.

Obviously wealthy landowners who thought that they were buying their own private Montana are angry. The conflict comes because the Montana Stream Access Law says the public owns the rivers. For recreation, including hunting and fishing, everyone has a right to get access to virtually any waterway that flows through private land. But many landowners have put up fences to keep people away from the streams, an act that is now in violation of the Stream Access Law.

So far Montana has fought off this new water enclosure movement.  Governor Brian Schweitzer insists, ”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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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.