— Story by Mike Dennison – MTN News
HELENA — Legislative Republicans and outdoor-recreation groups lined up Monday behind a bill they said would increase access through private land to “landlocked” public lands in Montana.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee also heard and approved Senate Bill 341 by day’s end, advancing it to the Senate floor.
“I think too many of us too often enjoy fighting over issues like public access, and it’s good to have an opportunity to come together where we can find some common ground and really move an issue forward,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Chadwick and other leaders of outdoor groups appeared earlier Monday with GOP leaders at a Capitol news conference to promote SB341, which is sponsored by Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell.
The bill would create public-land access agreements, which would be granted to a landowner who is allowing access through his or her private land to public land. They would be paid up to $15,000 a year, depending on the nature and duration of the access.
“What is important about this bill, is that it brings willing landowners and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the table on an even playing field, to address and create an agreement that works for both sportsmen’s and sportswomen’s benefit,” Blasdel said.
The department would negotiate terms of any agreement, which would also be reviewed by the Private Land/Public Wildlife Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed by the governor.
The bill said about 1.5 million acres of federal land are inaccessible in Montana, blocked by private land.
Chadwick and other outdoor-group officials said the bill gives public land managers another option to increase public access to public lands, by creating agreements built around the needs of the private landowner.
“I think it’s really important to remember that access is not a yes-no question,” he said. “It’s a `how,’ and `to what extent.’ And programs like this one give us the ability to expand public access while also protecting the needs and desires of private property owners.”