A bill introduced in the Montana Legislature this week would give county attorneys a strong tool to prevent public road closures by increasing the outdated fine for illegally gating established county roads.
Senate Bill 224, sponsored by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, would increase the fine for an encroachment on a county road from the current $10 per day to up to $500 per day, with no minimum fine. Jacobson is bringing the bill to crack down on people who illegally block the ability of the public to get to national forests and other public lands by putting up encroachments on county roads that lead to those lands.
“For decades, this fine has been so low that it’s simply no deterrent for people to gate off county roads and block off public lands,” Jacobson said. “And when access to our public lands is blocked off, it turns that land into private playgrounds for the lawbreakers who are doing it and the public loses.”
The bill is strongly supported by hunters, anglers, and other public land users who are tired of seeing illegal gates on public roads that lead to public lands. It has support from county attorneys and officials who are caught up in litigation when a road is gated off and becomes the focus of lawsuits.
Numerous county roads have been illegally gated throughout the state. A prime example is the Hughes Creek Road in Ravalli County. This road has been illegally closed to the public for more than three decades – even though courts have affirmed that it is a legal public road. The road leads to the Bitterroot National Forest and re-opening it would restore thousands of acres for public hunting, hiking and wildlife watching.
“Having a real, meaningful fine in state law for gating these public roads will give county attorneys a strong tool to get these roadblocks taken down quickly,” said Erin Arnold, Senior Civil Deputy County Attorney for Gallatin County. “A lot of these cases could be prevented in the first place, or resolved quickly if the penalty is a real deterrent.”
“The first step toward keeping public roads open to public use is having some real teeth in the fine,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “Senator Jacobson’s bill will make people think twice before they put up barriers to the public’s legal access to public lands for hunting, fishing, and other uses.”
Please support SB 224 to put some teeth into state law and help improve public access to public lands by signing the petition.