GREAT FALLS – Legislation has been proposed to levy stiffer state fines on Montana landowners who illegally gate roads and require that they show proof of ownership before blocking access.
The two Great Falls lawmakers who are sponsoring the bills said in a statement that their goal is to improve public access to public lands by keeping roads they say are public open.
The bills are backed by wildlife and public access groups, and opposed by private property and ranching interests.
Private landowners and hunters and anglers increasingly are butting heads in court over remote roads into the state’s forests, mountains and rivers. At issue in these cases are whether roads crossing private land are public or private. The roads have become contentious because they often cross private acreage leading to public lands.
House Bill 304 is sponsored by Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, and would increase the penalty for gating a public road from $10 a day to $500 a day.
“This bill will clarify language in our state laws, raise the penalty for failing to remove an obstacle and ultimately solve disputes over access quickly and fairly for everyone involved,” Tropila told the Great Falls Tribune.
The second bill, House Bill 286, is sponsored by Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls. It would require that individuals wishing to close a public road first contact local officials and legally prove that the road should be closed. A disputed road would have to remain open until it’s proven to be a private road.
“The burden of proof should not be on the public who have used these roads for decades,” said Jacobson, calling access the No. 1 issue for hunters and anglers.
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Source: Associated Press