National parks, jagged peaks, sprawling forests; Montana is home to more than 30 million acres of public land. Our shared lands are beloved by many Montanans, and a huge draw for tourists from around the world. But just because those lands exist doesn’t mean people can actually get to them. When public land and private property collide, real conflicts over access arise. And that’s a sticking point in this year’s race for governor.
Montana Public Radio’s Charles Bolte explores what candidates are really talking about when they say they’re “for access,” and if that political rhetoric matches up with the issues Montanans are actually facing.
Listen now on Shared State Episode 05: The Grandeur Of Our Mountains And The Vastness Of Our Rolling Plains
Sara Aronson Russell Offerdahl and Richard Hjort are hunting buddies. Their friendship goes way back to the 1970s.
Richard Hjort You know, Seventy-Seven, we got ... our wives work together.
Russell Offerdahl Our wives work together at J.C. Penney's.
Hjort And we met there picking up our wives one day.
Offerdahl True story.
Aronson They're talking with Montana Public Radio reporter Charles Bolte in the visitor's center of a state park near Kalispell. The two are really into hunting. And more specifically, elk.
Offerdahl We were not your ...
Hjort ... Sleep in until noon hunters [laughter]
Offerdahl Were absolutely vicious hunters.
Hjort We'd go out in the dark and come home in the dark.
Offerdahl Every day.
Aronson For two and a half decades, they would head to the same spot north of Lewistown. Every fall.
Charles Bolte Could one of you or both of you describe the area to me? You know what's it look like?
Hjort The Missouri River Breaks. That's all you gotta say.
Aronson That's a vast landscape in central Montana etched with deep ravines, sagebrush and fir forest.
Offerdahl When we first went over there, it was ...
Hjort An elk hunter's dream ...
Offerdahl ... There's no other way to really describe it.
Hjort In the late season, herds of 100.
Offerdahl We'd bugle-in three bulls in the morning, two in the evening. It was it was an embarrassment of wealth. It truly was.
Aronson Russell and Richard always camped on an area owned by the Bureau of Land Management, Public Land. But to get there, they had to drive through an area that the federal government didn't own. They remember a hunting trip back in 2007. Some of that private land had changed hands. And the new land owner didn't want them there.
Hjort Comes to our tent and says, 'hey, there's new rules here. There's a new sheriff in town.'
Offerdahl That's what he said: 'There's a new sheriff in town.'
Hjort And we both looked at him; OK, what's going on? He says, I've purchased the land up here at X, Y, Z fence and you can't drive by it any longer. You can't you can't go past that.
Aronson He said the road to their campground was closed now that he owned it. But the two weren't ready to just take the guy's word for it. The next day they talked to a sheriff, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a county commissioner. Everybody said they should be in the clear. So they went back to camp. The land owner confronted them again.
Offerdahl He came and said, I'm going to have you charged. And we ask him, who are you going to have charge us?
Aronson The day after that, a Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks warden showed up and wrote them a ticket for criminal trespass. Not long after, the landowner put a locked gate on the road so folks like Russell and Richard couldn't get through. A county judge wound up throwing out the charges, so they never went to jail or had to pay any money. But later, courts would rule that the road closure was legit.
Bolte And what were you feeling when you got that decision? How did you react?
Hjort Like I just got kicked in the knee.
Aronson Russell and Richard haven't been back to that hunting area for 13 years.
I'm Sarah Aaronson and this is Shared State, a podcast about what's driving Montana's 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.
This campaign season, pledges to protect public access and accusations that others threaten it are getting thrown like political javelins, especially in the governor's race. The governor, after all, is the head honcho of the agencies that work on and manage state lands. But what are candidates really talking about when they say they're for access? And does the political rhetoric match up with the problems Montanans are actually dealing with?
[voice montage] We, the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity, and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations, do ordain and establish ... do ordain and establish this constitution.
Aronson Here's the second part of our public lands coverage. Episode five, The grandeur of our mountains and the vastness of our rolling plains. Charles Bolte takes it from here.
Bolte Andrew Posewitz and I are floating the Missouri River in his drift boat. It's a place that teams with wildlife.
Andrew Posewitz Yeah, the the big ones are a great blue herons. And then you've got a couple of mergansers that are just a little bit downstream further on the sandbar. And so they're waiting for the the small fish to get up in that backwater and then they'll, they'll have their meal.
Bolte The debates and legal challenges about public lands access, they didn't just crop up overnight. They're part of a longer history of Montanans land. Andrew is one of the people who can tell that story. He's a member of the nonprofit group in Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He's also been floating this stretch of the Missouri since he was two years old.
What do you love about this river?
Posewitz Oh, there's a lot I love about this river. I love the fish that are in this river. I love all of the access that's in the river. I love that I can bring my kids to this river without being afraid at all, It's very calm. A lot of great things collide in this river for me.
Bolte Andrew spent a lot of time around Montana conservationists as a kid. The kind of people who played key roles in making public access what it is today. Advocates and activists, Andrew says, would mortgage their house to help keep fighting. Posewitz was connected to this circle because of his dad.
So my dad was Jim Posewitz. I think some would argue he was probably Montana's best known conservationist, certainly through the '70s and the '80s. And I think he would resent that because he would recognize how many other people were in that boat with him.
Bolte Jim Posewitz worked for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks for over 30 years as a biologist, as a conservationist. He wrote a book called Beyond Fair Chase and founded the Orion Hunters Institute, both of which tackle hunting ethics. Along the way, his son Andrew chipped in to help his dad with some of his books. The younger Posewitz came away with a lot of insight into public lands, access and the history behind it.
Andrew Posewitz You'll see in Montana, in public lands, and you'll hear this old term a lot: 'The checkerboarded land.'
Bolte If you've ever looked out the window as your plane landed in western Montana, you may have noticed this. Much of the landscape is all squares. One square covered in trees. The next totally bare. Like a checkerboard. Today, there are more than 30 million acres of state and federal public land here. But according to recent reports by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and OnX Maps, more than three million of those acres are locked away, surrounded by private lands. That means lots of people who want to recreate or use that land can't get there at all. To understand why the landscape looks this way, you need to look way back all the way to the 1800s
Posewitz I mean, you have to go all the way back and say, OK, the land in Montana was part of the Louisiana Purchase. This was purchased from Napoleon. And so the federal government owned all of this. And the federal government got rid of ownership through a whole variety of means.
All this ownership and selling off, it meant the U.S. government was stripping away land from the indigenous peoples who'd lived here for millennia, and brutally displacing them. The government then made property deals that organized Western lands into a grid of endless one mile by one mile squares. To help settle the vast West, the government sold and gave away tons of those little parcels. In particular, as railroads made their way west the government gave them every other square of land near the lines. Lots of that ownership has changed hands over the years, creating the checkerboard we see today. It's also forming the incredibly complex modern world of public access that people like Andrew spend their lives being concerned about.
Posewitz The simple reality is that if you want to do what's best for Montana economically and for jobs, you have to recognize the role that public lands and access to those lands play, because it's bigger than agriculture, it's bigger than mining, and it's bigger than timber.
Bolte According to the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation, outdoor recreation accounts for seven billion dollars in wages and salaries and more than 70,000 jobs in the state. The outdoors are a big part of Montana's economy and quality of life. That makes all the political rhetoric flying around in this year's gubernatorial race worth paying attention to.
I wanted to get to the bottom of what both candidates actually plan to do about public lands access. Let's start with Republican U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte. He says he knew he wanted to make his life here after a trip to Montana's backcountry over 40 years ago. Later, when he founded a tech company in Bozeman and needed more employees, he relied on Montana's public treasures and outdoor recreation to entice new hires.
Greg Gianforte To get people who had already self selected Montana, they were coming here to ski or go to Yellowstone Park, to say, 'hey, why don't you work where you play?' And we got some real talent that way.
This is from an interview with Gianforte a few weeks back. He said he understands the inherent value of Montana's lands and recreation. When it comes to his plan for the governor's office. Gianforte says he'll rely on three key principles to guide him.
Gianforte Number one, public lands have to stay in public hands. Secondly, we should be working to increase access. And third, the voice of the local community is the most important thing.
Bolte When it comes to public land more generally, there's a lot to unpack in Gianforte's record. In Congress he's introduced legislation to get rid of Wilderness Study Area protections on hundreds of thousands of acres in Montana. Conservationists were skeptical about that, but Gianforte says it would have opened up access for recreators. He also proposed a bill that permanently banned mining in an area near Yellowstone National Park. When talking about what he'd do for access as governor, Gianforte says he wants to use existing programs better.
Gianforte There are federal programs that allow us to consolidate checkerboard property. I don't think we've used those as effectively as we could. We have good programs like block management.
Bolte That's a program where the state works out, deals with landowners to let people come hunt, opening up public access on private land.
Gianforte But we're still running it like with a stone tablet and a chisel. There's this new thing called the Internet and computers, which if we had an online reservation system, it'd be easier for landowners to participate and it be easier for sportsmen.
Bolte It's hard to go deep into the specifics on some of these policy ideas. But what I hear from Gianforte is that he puts an emphasis on local input and technology. Ideas that square with his history in the business world. He also says he wants to strengthen partnerships with private landowners without confiscating their property rights.
I wanted to understand how Gianforte's opponent thinks about access too. Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. I caught up with him after an outdoor press conference in Missoula.
Mike Cooney You bet. Well, I mean, first of all, I think we have some good tools in our toolbox. I don't think they've been utilized as well as they really should have been. And that's what we need to do. We need to really make sure we're focusing our time and attention, understanding what we have.
Bolte His campaign website says, "access is a Montana value and one that Mike Cooney will work to increase and defend." He spelled out the details in his Protect the Last Best Place plan, which he released earlier this summer. As governor he also says he'll focus on strengthening existing programs like Habitat Montana, which uses money from hunting licenses to buy land and give incentives to farmers and ranchers to open up access. It's faced threats in the legislature in the past, and Cooney says he'd have his veto pen ready should any similar legislation come along. Cooney also says he has a good resumé as a public lands champion. He points to his experience as a state legislator and his time on the land board, which has final say, approving any big new additions of state lands.
Cooney When I was on there for 12 years, that was a major focus of mine. My focus is not going to change. We'll make sure that we're we're getting a good return on our state lands. But we'll also make sure that we're not we're not doing anything that prevents Montanans from having access to those lands. And I was so proud ...
Bolte When it really comes down to why public lands are important to Montana, Cooney goes back to his roots.
Cooney A couple of reasons. First of all, I'm a Montanans and we're raising our family here. All three of my kids are fortunate enough to live and work in Montana. The reason we love it is because of what we have right outside our back door. But it's also a huge part of our economy and it's a huge part of who we are as Montanans in general. Montanans love to be able to get out, you know, have access to the greatest, cleanest air, water, recreational opportunities, hunting and fishing. And we we cannot let that go because that is who we are. And that's why I'm fighting so hard.
Bolte Both candidates say they want to increase access, but I wanted to find out what can the governor actually do about all this? I drove over to Helena to meet up with Nick Gevock to get some answers.
Nick Gevock I'm the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. And I've been in this position for seven and a half years. And before that, I was a journalist in Montana, a newspaper reporter at both The Bozeman Chronicle and The Montana Standard in Butte.
Bolte When Nick covered public lands and wildlife as a reporter, it gave him a lot of perspective.
Gevock I think our public lands and outdoor recreation is a big reason why people live here, and frankly, move here. You know, it's, the list of activities is endless, right? And it really defines us as Montanans. I mean, we love our outdoors. We love our public lands. And yet, if you can't get to those public lands, basically you can't enjoy them.
Bolte Nick says the governor can play a big part in that enjoyment, that the role is central to access.
Gevock You know, a governor can really set the tone about whether he or she is really proactive about increasing access to public lands.
Bolte The governor can do that through two key departments under their control. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Both have a bevy of programs and people working on access projects. Remember those three million acres of public land in Montana that people can't get to at all? These departments collaborate with nonprofit, private, state and federal partners to buy land or make agreements with private landowners that secure public access. If the governor wants these efforts to be a priority, they can do that. If not, that's up to them, really. Lastly, but incredibly important, the governor has veto power. Here's Nick again.
Gevock We have all kinds of bad bills affecting access at times, or we have the potential for them at least. And so, you know, it's nice to have that veto pen there at times.
By bad bills, he means things like a 2011 bill that would have limited stream access, or a 2019 piece of legislation he says would have made getting easements approved a nightmare. Gevock says these bills would have put private property rights ahead of public access.
Gevock And that that is the constant theme we're dealing with here, is the privatization of public resources, whether it's the wildlife, the fish and the lands and the waters. You know, we we see this throughout the West where people want a fishery of their own. People want to, frankly, own the animals on that private land. And that is the sort of principle of what we call, you know, the public trust doctrine; the concept that that these animals, the deer and the elk and all the wildlife are a public trust resource held by the state of Montana for the people of Montana.
Bolte That idea of the public trust, it's what Russell Offerdahl and Richard Hjort feel like they've been cut off from. From a place and an experience that means a lot to them. And if you listen to Cooney and Gianforte, they make the issue sound pretty straightforward. Access is good and something we should work to increase. But there's another side to this story, too.
Hertha Lund Public access is about property rights.
That's Hertha Lund, She's an attorney in Bozeman.
Lund My Montana values have to do with loving the vastness of nature and the, you know, the panorama that we have around us. I mean, the best thing about Bozeman is in thirty minutes you can be in Montana.
Bolte She's also an animal person. At home on a ranch she runs an equine therapy program with her four horses and her dog.
Lund This is Chewey. She's our office dog and she also works on the ranch.
Bolte Hertha has a long history of working to protect the rights of private property owners. To be clear, she has no involvement in Russell and Richard's case over that road near the Missouri Breaks. But she says there is a perspective that gets neglected in all the political conversations about public access.
Lund You know, sometimes a landowner may not want a county road to be reopened when it goes through their private ground to get the public ground. And that's not because they're against public access. It's because they don't want a lot of people driving through their yard.
Bolte That can mean trash, noise pollution, loss of privacy. People can feel like they and their land are being disrespected and that their liberty is being trampled.
Lund One of the sticks in the bundle of sticks for the private landowner is the right to exclude others. That's why we own our house. We own property. That's our property vis-a-vis the world. So it's just like saying, you know, if somebody says, well, I want to use that road through your ranch just like, well, I want to walk through your living room to the back yard.
Bolte Hertha's interest in property rights began decades ago. Before she practiced law she was working as a journalist.
Lund I covered some property rights cases at the United States Supreme Court, some of the seminal cases. And while I was reporting on that, I decided I didn't want to report on it, I wanted to do it.
Bolte To her, the bottom line is helping out ordinary folks just trying to live on their land. She says public access gets polarized, hijacked by candidates who are trying to play politics, not make a difference on the ground. So I was curious what she thought of all the arguments flying around about what the gubernatorial candidates would do for access.
Lund I don't think it makes a hill of beans. There are many other issues we could talk about where we could differentiate between them. This is not it. My wisdom after all these years is this is an issue that begs us to get back to the real Montana values, which is where we work together to solve common problems. We respect each other's rights. And and, you know, then we can start, you know, making progress and still keeping our community together without the polarizing forces from outside influences.
Bolte The way Hertha sees it, people coming at this from all different angles just need to sit down and talk to each other. I wanted to talk to someone else who's knee deep in getting this work done at the ground level, so to speak. I made a couple of calls and got connected with a guy named Randy Arnold.
Randy Arnold I'm Randy Arnold. I'm the regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for our administrative region two which is based out of Missoula.
Bolte Randy found his way to Montana from Colorado 20 years ago. He ended up sticking around at the U of M to get a degree in wildlife biology.
Arnold All I knew at the time as a young freshman was that I wanted to work outdoors. And in that first class of careers in natural resources, a warden captain came to visit, talked a little bit about what being a Montana game warden was all about, and that was it. That's all I wanted to do.
Bolte Fast forward 20 years and now he could be the one to give that talk at U of M. Before we could dive deep, we had to clear something up.
Arnold When I hear somebody say that they're pro access, the first thing that comes to my mind is, if I wanted to have a dialog around that, I'd sure want to know what they mean. It's probably a relatively safe position to have, is that you're pro access. And the less you define that, the easier it is for the listener, whatever the audience, to say, 'that person's like me' -- because you haven't defined it.
Bolte For example, are we talking about access to public lands or private lands? They're different things and come with different programs. And what do you want to do when you get there? Do you want to hike in the wilderness or do you want to ride your dirt bike on some off-road trails? Randy says the wide spectrum of what access means makes it complicated to talk about. And if you want efforts to increase access to be productive, you need to understand what it is you're working toward. That way you'll know how to best use the system.
Arnold It's not as easy as saying we're for access, here's the GIS layer that points to where the access should be, and go get it.
Bolte Access deals take lots of work, time and money on a long time scale. These days it's even harder, because as Randy says, the low-hanging fruit has been picked. There aren't loads of opportunities flying in on the regular. You have to hold what you've got and also be ready to pounce on rare new opportunities. But also,
Arnold There's a huge team of people. There's a huge network of of interested parties, sportsmen's groups and other partners who look for these opportunities, look for these changes, and you seize them when they come up.
Bolte Randy says that lots of access projects move at a pace that's longer than four years. That doesn't make a single governor irrelevant. But there's a bit of a disconnect with all that lofty campaign rhetoric. These days, a lot of access initiatives come from the ground up, not top down. Randy says it's all about the bonds that people like game wardens, wildlife biologists and landowners form with each other.
Arnold That is the magic that opens those opportunities, are those personal relationships built over many, many years. And anytime you try to move faster than that scale it usually isn't as effective. And so it's just it's just recognizing that sometimes our most most important projects happen after years and years of somebody else's long built relationships and work. And you just can't replicate that.
Bolte Take the story of Russell Offerdahl all in Richard Hjort that brought us into this whole thing.
Hjort We're not trying to start a movement or nothing. We just did something back then that result was morally right.
Bolte A nonprofit that advocates for public access dove in on their blocked roads situation over a decade ago to keep pushing things along. After all, russell and Richard are just two guys without the resources to fight a long battle. Today, that case is still working its way through the appeals process. I reached out to the landowners who closed off the road, but they never got back to me. This particular issue may never get on the governor's radar. It's all about local players and relationship building.
So, you know, if Mabee Road ever gets opened back up and you're physically able, are you going to go back there and go hunting?
Offerdahl Absolutely. I would love to go out and spend the night in the tent and ...
Hjort ... Listen to them bugle ...
Offerdahl ... listening to the bulls scream all night, there's nothing like it.
Offerdahl The experiences that we've had there are shaping. Pretty deeply felt experiences.
Aronson Shared State is made by Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press. This episode was reported by Charles Bolte. Nick Mott is our editor. Mara Silvers is our producer. Editorial assistance comes from Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney. Brad Tyer and John Adams.
Next week: "... desiring to improve the quality of life." What do Montanans need from the economy to live and prosper here? And how do campaign pledges match up with those needs?
If you're just joining us, check out our podcast feed for our first few episodes. You can leave us a review or share with your friends, it helps other people find the show. I'm Sarah Aaronson. I'll talk to you next time.