On January 16 of this year, the Montana Supreme Court overturned a lower court and assured public access to the Ruby River from county bridges on private land. The decision in Public Land/Water Access Association, Inc.(PLAA) v. Madison County sets a precedent that validates and affirms Montana’s stream and bridge access laws.
PLAA filed a complaint against Madison County in May 2004, alleging that individuals who owned property adjacent to the three bridges had erected fences along each county road to the ends of each bridge, preventing the public from using the bridge easement rights-of-way to access the Ruby River. PLAA sought, among other things, a declaratory judgment that the public may use several county road bridges and bridge abutments to access the Ruby River.
Madison County and the landowner defendant asserted the bridge easement gave only right of travel and bridge maintenance, and that no easement to the public for river access existed.
Many groups filed briefs supporting both sides of the case as it wound its way through the courts.
The Montana court concluded: ”… the scope of use of the public road right-of-way is not limited to the adverse usage through which it was acquired and that any foreseeable uses of a public road right-of-way, including recreational use, are permitted.” Further, once accessed, the court indicated “it is settled law in Montana that the public may use the beds of non-navigable rivers, up to the high water mark, for recreation…. our Constitution, statutes and precedent preclude a riparian landowner from excluding public use of a streambed.”
Some irate landowners continue to hold that Montana’s public access laws infringe on private-property rights. For example, United Property Owners of Montana was highly critical of the decision. It said, “Montanans awoke today to find their constitutional property rights further eroded by the Montana Supreme Court.” The group’s policy director said the decision ultimately may lead to a bigger win for landowners by providing an opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court the larger issue of the constitutionality of Montana’s stream access law.
Though the question is perhaps not settled, this 10 year old case is an important precedent affirming public use of the public’s resource in Montana.