Courtroom fight for public access was worth it

Sunday, November 24, 2019
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Guest Column

The fight for public access and private property rights is a personal one for me. It started with the Stenson family, who ranch near Wibaux.

Nearly one year ago, Governor Bullock asked me to go to court and protect public access, conservation easements, and private property rights in Montana from attacks by our own Attorney General.

The Stensons, a long-time ranching family, worked for years with the State of Montana to put their ranch into a conservation easement through the Habitat Montana program. They wanted to do the right thing and protect these lands and habitat, keeping them open to us, the public, to hunt and recreate—forever.

Then our Attorney General tried to stop it all, caving to special interests and state legislators who simply didn’t like the idea of Montana farmers and ranchers conserving wildlife habitat and opening up access for outdoor recreationists. The Attorney General put up roadblocks to the Habitat Montana program, which helps Montana farmers and ranchers put their land into conservation easements and opens up public access to all Montanans.

What the Attorney General did wasn’t right. Montana values are about stewardship of our lands and protecting access for all of us. And at our core, Montanans flat out hate it when politicians interfere with our private property rights.

It was also illegal. So we took the Attorney General to court. We took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and I argued it. I stood there before the justices of our highest court and fought for all the farm and ranch families affected and for the future of conservation in Montana.

We won. By a vote of 6-1, the Supreme Court stopped the Attorney General and saved the Habitat Montana program as we know it. Today, you can hunt and camp on thousands of new acres of wildlife habitat, and access additional public lands adjoining them, because of it.

After our win for the public, more landowners are stepping forward because they know we have their backs. We are building on the decades-long partnership with hunters, anglers, and recreationists to protect farms and ranches, wildlife habitat, and invite the public onto their land. There are now nearly 200,000 acres of easements in the works.

Politicians like to talk about public access. Talking points don’t cut it for me. As an advocate, I’ve done the hard work of actually fighting for Montana values in court.

Public access to hunt and recreate makes Montana special. It helps us carry on the traditions of responsible hunting, fishing, and stewardship our parents taught us and their parents taught them.

This case — and the ordeal inflicted on the Stenson family by politicians — are the reason I decided to run for Attorney General. We need an Attorney General who works for our values, not against them for the sake of political games. We need an Attorney General who will protect our public access and the farmers and ranchers who make this state great, not sell them off to rich special interests.

I encourage you to visit the Horse Creek Conservation easement this year — the Stensons’ immaculate, expansive property near Wibaux that got this case started. Or check out sites closer to home. There are literally hundreds of thousands of acres in our state protected — and open to you — because of Habitat Montana.

Go make new memories there, and remember the families who put everything at stake to keep this program alive.

Raph Graybill is Governor Steve Bullock’s Chief Legal Counsel and Democratic candidate for Attorney General.