A 2009 dispute over public access to fishing site involving gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte was settled in 2013 after a compromise was reached with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Gianforte and his wife, Susan, filed a complaint against the state agency alleging that a one-acre easement that provided a route to the East Gallatin River near the Cherry River wasn’t legal. In the lawsuit, filed in Gallatin County District Court in May 2009, the Gianfortes claimed that only one of several property owners involved in the agreement actually signed the easement, therefore making it invalid.
FWP refused to terminate the easement, noting that this public fishing access site along Manley Road near Bozeman plays a significant role in allowing anglers to reach the East Gallatin River, located near Seventh Avenue north of I-90. In return for the easement agreement in 1993, FWP had allowed Manley Road property owners to run utilities across a portion of the 75-acre FWP parcel.
However, upon further review FWP, realized that the user-created trail leading to the river did cross the Gianfortes’ land outside of the easement, and agreed to reroute the path to the west.
“In my mind, the trail does not access the easement, but accesses the river near the easement on FWP land,” Todd Garrett, former FWP regional fishing access site manager, wrote in an email on March 21, 2010, to FWP attorney Becky Jakes Dockter.
He recommended that FWP “make efforts to reclaim the user-created trail” and create an alternative. Garrett also wrote that FWP should continue noxious weed control, post adequate signs informing the public of the proper trail, and post “No Trespassing” signs along the public/private border.
In a letter from Jakes Dockter to Gianforte’s attorney, Art Wittich, she wrote that relocating the foot path from the parking area to the river was an attractive alternative for all “because the site could be chosen for better access for the public, which would divert their attention from the other lands owned by the Gianfortes to the real purpose for their access, the river.”
“In return, FWP requests that the Gianfortes fence the relocated easement area … (to) better assure the Department, the public and the Gianfortes that public use is in the appropriate Easement area,” Jakes Dockter wrote.
In November 2010, Jakes Dockter filed a settlement agreement with the District Court after getting no response from the Gianfortes or their lawyer. The case was dismissed without prejudice in February 2013, meaning that the plaintiffs can file a new lawsuit, based on the same grounds, at a later date.
“The reason it was dismissed was they never served us—they filed the lawsuit, sent a letter and then we just discussed things and tried to resolve it,” Jakes Dockter said on Tuesday. “We never relinquished an easement and always allowed the public to use the site, but as with any access we wanted to ensure we weren’t impacting the neighbors.”
She did note that it’s unusual for an easement dispute between FWP and neighbors to be elevated to the legal arena.
“Given that we try really hard to make sure we are good neighbors, I don’t think this happens very often,” Jakes Dockter said. “Not many lawsuits like this get filed.”
Still, Travis Horton, the FWP Region 3 fisheries manager, said he didn’t know of any disputes over access in the area during the time the easement was being contested.
The anonymous liberal Montana Cowgirl blog earlier this week attempted to frame the easement lawsuit as an issue in the gubernatorial race, writing that “It plays directly into the narrative that Gianforte’s campaign doesn’t want to unfold: that Gianforte is a wealthy person from elsewhere, who moved to Montana to build a trophy home and fence off public land. “
Gianforte called the allegation that he tried to deny stream access one of a number of “false accusations” and wrote in a press release that he and his wife “allow stream access, parking on our property, and archery hunting on our land.”
“We often sit by the river after a long day and wave to folks walking along the banks or canoeing downstream,” he wrote. “It is important to note that we continued welcoming anglers on our property before, during, and after these discussions with FWP.”
Eve Byron is a freelance journalist based in Helena, Mont. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.