Governor Steve Bullock is stepping up his attack on his Republican opponent Greg Gianforte over a lawsuit involving stream access filed in 2009. In this interview, MTPR’s Corin Cates-Carney presses Bullock on whether he’s making a mountain out of a molehill.
The lawsuit was publicized on the liberal "Montana Cowgirl" blog on May 9. The Bullock campaign is characterizing it as an attempt to block public access across Gianforte's Bozeman-area property to the East Gallatin River.
Gianforte has told the the Helena Independent Record the lawsuit came from a misunderstanding over easement boundaries.
Gov. Bullock requested an interview on the topic. Our Capitol Reporter Corin Cates-Carney sat down with him.
Corin Cates-Carney: In the past week, your party's been raising a big issue about a 2009 lawsuit involving the Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte and stream access. Can you explain that?
Steve Bullock: One of the incredible things about our state is enjoyment of public lands, and truly we have probably the best stream access laws in the country. And that's something that throughout my career —I've kind of split my time between the private sector and the public sector — but all of my time in the public sector, I've really fought to protect that.
One of the first lawsuits I defended in federal court was an out-of-state group, Mountain States Legal Foundation, trying to undo these stream access laws. Did a lot of work as Attorney General and others.
It's something that we hold dear in Montana, and what came up a couple weeks ago is that in 2009 Greg Gianforte sued to end an easement or access to the East Gallatin River.
CCC: It seems like he wasn't trying to remove access. He never denied access. There was just this dispute over the property boundary issue.
SB: Maybe that's easy to say seven years later, but if you look at the actual lawsuit, it said that the easement — so the right to get that river — when it was created it wasn't correct. Said that there's access in other areas, other than through this legally recognized easement. And the lawsuit said to terminate the easement, so this isn't something that, I guess that blog made up, or I made up. It was in the courthouse there in Bozeman.
CCC: The email that the fish and wildlife service [Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks] sent to Art Wittich, the attorney, said Gianforte was willing to consider alternate public access and better public access, and easier compliance for the public. Why is the issue around access and not just the property boundary?
SB: Well, I think the lawsuit said they wanted to get rid of the easement. At the same time that he was suing, I was actually working here at the Legislature getting the first stream access bill passed in 24 years. Fish, Wildlife and Parks said after they got sued, or before, said take the gates down. You know, this is stuff that happened years ago. Whereas it'd be great for some to try to say that, notwithstanding the fact that the lawsuit's there, notwithstanding the fact that that correspondence is there to tell a different story. But from my perspective, this is one of those core values in Montana, and I think it is important.
CCC: Your campaign reached out to us as this is something that we should talk about and use airtime talking about. What about this particular issue is gonna make Montanans say you are the best candidate for governor when there are a lot of other topics — the economy, the infrastructure, education — that could've maybe yielded a more substantial conversation and debate.
SB: Well, I've got a feeling over the next 160 days, this won't be the only time we talk, Corin. From my perspective, this is one issue that really gets to the core values. We could talk about public lands, we could talk about all of those areas where this is about what kind of direction both Montana's gonna go in, and who the candidates are.
CCC: Did the lawsuit by the Gianfortes restrict access to the stream?
SB: The lawsuit that was filed wanted to terminate the easement, so terminate the access, that there were other ways to get to the river, and that that access was never right in the first place. So, fortunately he didn't win.
CCC: It seems like he was moving access locations. It was a settlement. The department agreed that there was a path that was going onto their land, and they said 'all right, we can move that back, you can put up fences.' It seems like a mis-characterization to say he wanted to remove access versus just talk about the location of it.
SB: He sued, and you can read articles back from 2009 where he and his lawyers were saying, 'no this access isn't legal, it shouldn't be there, there's other ways to get to the river.' So however you want to try to paint it seven years later, he filed in court against the state of Montana to get rid of this legal access. That's an affront to Montanans
CCC: Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been using issues — maybe mis-characterizing issues. Is stream access being used in the same way as when they said you were misusing the state plane, and using these as more of a tool to get ahead in the campaign rather than bring up more substantial issues?
SB: Corin, put the complaint that was filed in district court then on your website, let Montanans decide. I think that public lands — look, we have 11 million visitors to the state of Montana each and every year. Our outdoor economy is significant, and it's in part because of our stream access laws. So no, I think that's significant.
I think when you talk about overall policies for taxes — we're named the most fiscally prudent state in the country. And you rolled out a tax plan, by my reckoning it would turn our state upside down. I don't want to be a New Jersey who's had eight credit downgradings the last five years, or a Louisiana.
You can look at issues of education. You can look in many different areas, but I think that this is a part of it sure.
CCC: Gov. Bullock I appreciate you taking the time.
SB: It was great talking to you.