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Montana Politics

Senator Barrett: Defending the Once-ler, Attacking Anglers

It seems that the Montana GOP isn’t content to demonize GLBT Montanans, federal law enforcement officials, teachers, and state workers at veterans homes. Now they’re attacking anglers and, perhaps worst of all, misinterpreting Dr. Seuss to do it. The nerve, to attack those who just want to preserve!

I’m not sure that it speaks well of a State Senator that she missed the message of a book for children, but I’m reasonably sure that The Lorax was not a defense of landowners over people who want to enjoy the natural environment. Despite this, Senator Debby Barrett opens her attack on Montana’s premier advocacy group for fishermen this way:

Remember the Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax? “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.”
Well, the Montana Legislature has its own version of the Lorax; Montana Trout Unlimited which professes to speak for moderate conservation-minded folks who like to fish. Trout Unlimited also professes to speak for sound water policy and senior water right holders in Montana, but the honest truth is that Trout Unlimited represents a very narrow and radical view on Montana’s water that helps no one but Trout Unlimited make a name for itself on the backs of Montana’s farms, ranches, and water users, relying on hyperbole and scare tactics to do it, and that’s just not right.

No, what’s just not right, Senator Barrett is that you’re both lying about HB 309 and smearing a good organization. In your defense of HB 309, you claim that it only restricts access to ditches and irrigation canals. That’s simply not the case. As Bob Lane, chief counsel for FWP made clear:

HB309 almost completely repeals the public’s right to recreate on rivers and streams: by making any stream or river a private stream or river where the return flows from irrigation are the majority of the flow~ and, by privatizing side-channels of braided rivers and streams. All of this in the guise of clarifying the present, clear statutory definition of private ditches that are off-limits to public recreation.

And it’s not true to suggest that the law is opposed only by Trout Unlimited. Fly fishermen, the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, FWP, and other experts all panned the bill for its vague language that could lead to serious access restrictions and protracted legal fights. Yellowstoner, a fisherman who know more than I could possibly know about this issue, put it really well:

Because of the poor craftsmanship this bill will probably be defeated this time around. And, because of the poor craftsmanship it will resurface again.

The stupidity of extending the definition of a ditch to rivers with reclaimed water is the key faux pas. This was done for the benefit of just two land owners that encouraged Welborn to have his staff write it for them.

We’ve not heard the last of this because of inept legislator bungling. More money and time will be wasted once again. I’ve been pretty low key about this stuff because I spent the time to visit with the folks in Helena.

This is a bad bill, written at the behest of a few people who lost a court case and who want to overturn generations of stream access. It deserves a quick death, lame justifications notwithstanding, in the Senate.

More broadly, at the point when Montana Republicans are demonizing Trout Unlimited (hardly a radical environmental group), who’s left for them to represent?  Not everyone who disagrees with the GOP’s agenda is a radical. This session, quite often, they’re just right.

It’s an interesting tactic to name every opponent to your legislation “radical,” but to quote another children’s story, when you cry wolf too many times, people don’t believe you anymore.

Note to Senator Barrett: The Boy Who Cried Wolf is not, I repeat, not, a story that advocates lying to get what you want.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • What is stupefying about this is that Barrett represents SD 36, the entirety of Beaverhead county. As such, her district contains what are arguably some of the finest fly fishing waters in the state. Restricting those waters at all would inhibit the economy of Beaverhead county and Dillon most certainly.

    Barrett has something up her sleeve, here. A big money deal for private fishing access with a land owner on the Big Hole, or Ranching interest? Something. But she definitely has a dog in this hunt. Trout Unlimited and the FOAM have poured a ton of dollars into the Dillon community as a fishing mecca. Her support of this bill is just bass-ackwards from the values of her constituents.

  • word from a local fly fishing guide is that some powerful constituents of debbie barrett are waking up to the realization that her bill threatens main street businesses who depend on anglers.

    word is getting out many thanks to you, don. letters are being written and emails are being sent to barrett and gov schweitzer by fly fishing shops, grocers, motel owners, and bars all accross the state calling for HB309's demise.

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