District Court Judge Loren Tucker’s decision on access to streams at bridges on the Ruby River is a major victory for the Public Land/Water Access Association and for all Montana outdoor enthusiasts.
“Without the expertise and dedication of Devlan Geddes and Jim Goetz ot the Goetz law Firm in Bozeman, Montana, this victory would never have happened” said PLWA President John Gibson.
The court decision on the Ruby River Case is compicated but consider the following:
Regarding the two roads that are petitioned county roads (Duncan and Lewis Lanes ), the judge ruled that the easement is 60 feet wide and extends to the water. The public may use the entire 60 foot easement for any legal activity including access to the Ruby River. Although the county commissioners may authorize fences to be attached to the bridges, the fences do not constitute a boundary between public and private land, as contended by the landowners.
In fact, there is no pure private land within the width of the easement. All lands therein are subject to the provisions of the public easement which allows for public passage.
The judge also ruled that the following arguments by the Stockgrowers and Mr. Kennedy are FALSE, and that:
1. The right of way (easement) on these county roads DOES NOT narrow at bridges ( the easement is 60 feet in width everywhere unless specified in the original acceptance document issued by the county).
2. The fact that the river bottom is owned by the landowner does not prohibit the public from accessing the river where the road and water easements intersect.
There are a couple of related issues here as well. Although not mentioned in the decision document, it follows that…..
I. There can be no No Trespassing signs or orange paint within the 60 foot right of way.
2. Since county commissioners authorize the fences on these easements they have accepted a certain level of liability and must ensure that the fences are constructed in a manner such that will not impede passage or incur injury to the public while crossing the fence while exercising their legal right to access the stream.
This court decision should set a valuable precedent and clarify what needs to be included in the legislation that is being drafted.