Fiddle Creek Bridge / Shields River – Park County

Resolution Accomplished

In 2012, one of our PLWA members was driving over the Shields River Fiddle Creek Bridge and noticed a whole lot of orange paint and a bunch of nasty signs. The Shields is a classic small trout stream in the Livingston area. Our member took a few pictures and sent them on to members in Livingston. This started chain reaction of events leading to the removal of the illegal signs; but it is hard to believe how complicated such a simple compliance action can be.

One of our PLWA board members, George Bauer, had to research property ownership. Another member, Lou Goosey, had a preliminary meeting with the County Commissioners and the Local FWP warden. In the process FWP Commissioner Dan Vermilion got involved.

At the Feb. 26, 2013 Park County Commissioner meeting (pg. 7), they discussed public access to the Shields River at the Fiddle Creek Road.

“George Bauer of Public Lands Water Access Association provided photographs of pictures of a bridge over the Shields River on Fiddle Creek Road with ‘No Trespassing’ signs
he believes may be posted within the public right of way. Documentation provided by Bauer contained a map of the bridge and property in question and a court order establishing the public easement over the bridge he said was 30 feet on either side of the centerline of Fiddle Creek Road, as well as an additional easement granted. Bauer said he was providing the documentation in order for the Commission to determine whether it was correctly posted or posted on public lands. Bauer said he was told by a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks ranger that the posted No Trespassing signs were enforceable, but other individuals within FWP had conflicting answers or were unsure of the signs’ status.
Civil Deputy County Attorney Shannan Piccolo said the signs would need to be removed if posted within the public right of way. She said the public easement was established in 2001 per court order. Malone said a commissioner, Piccolo and the county surveyor would travel to the location, review information Bauer presented, and submit a letter to said landowner to take down the signs if Bauer’s information was correct. Piccolo said the easement is non-exclusive, which means any qualifying use must be permitted, such as assess for fishing, provided it does not restrict intended use of Fiddle Creek Road. Peter Fox, citizen, said the No Trespassing signs were present at the site in 2010, but in 2011 the fence wire was pulled taught. Ed Flatt, citizen, said livestock was present on the northeast quarter of the area in the winter. John Gibson, Public Lands Water Access Association, said the association was objecting to the signs and their potential to thwart public access to the river and not objecting to the fence.”

Essentially, the agencies had to be educated about the Bridge Access Law and be forcefully reminded of their responsibilities. The Park County Commissioners did their job at the May 6, 2013 meeting and ruled the signs had to come down.

“Civil Deputy County Attorney Shannan Piccolo said she, Commissioner Tinsley and a surveyor visited the site in question. The surveyor submitted a written report stating the bridge was located in the appropriate location. Piccolo provided a legal opinion the No Trespassing signs should be removed from the bridge as they are illegal. She will draft a letter to the property owner instructing them to take down the signs. She said stream access at the site is an issue to be addressed by Montana FWP.

Commissioner Tinsley moved to ask the county attorney’s office to send a letter to the landowners asking them to remove the No Trespassing signs that are on Park County property on at Fiddle Creek Bridge. Commissioner Durgan seconded the motion. Motion passed.”

About a month later, another member noticed they were still up. So then the question became, who will follow the law – the Sheriff ? FWP Wardens ? It turned out to be the latter, who did their job, pulled down the signs, and painted over the offending orange. There may still be some orange paint in the vicinity, but that does not deny access to the river below the high water mark. No one should be intimidated. Landowners are free to use orange paint to prohibit trespassing on land above the high water mark.

All of this just goes to show you how the compliance deck is often stacked against the public. Even though case law and statute law is on the side of access, getting action by responsible officials usually requires hours of research, pushing, shoving, and sometimes lawsuits.

In this case county officials and FWP were not obstructionist, but in many cases the County Commissions can be a major obstacle. We thank the Park County Commissioners, the County Attorney, and Commissioner Vermillion for their responsiveness.


Fiddle Creek Bridge
Public Land/Water Access Association Inc. or PLWA,
is a citizen group organized and operated under the Montana nonprofit corporation act.
The Internal Revenue Service has made a determination that PLWA qualifies as a tax- exempt
organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and that it is a public charity.

Articles and Information on this site represent the opinion of the writer and are not intended as legal advice.
Legal counsel may be needed in dealing with specific access situations and issues.