Mention the word “access” to any hunter or angler and you are sure to get their attention. Access has become the major issue facing hunters around Montana.
Public access to private land has definitely been helped over the years with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Block Management program. But what do you do if you have been illegally cut off from public access to public lands? In other words, what can be done if a public right of way, that you have been using for years, has been wrongfully gated by an adjoining landowner to stop the public from getting to a nearby piece of public land.
I recently met Brian Willis from the Public Lands Access Association (PLAA) who offered the answer. Willis is the western Montana representative and a director for the nonprofit organization. Its mission statement is simple and to the point: “Preserving your right to access our public lands and waters.” Willis is quick to point out that PLAA’s job is not to create new access, but to preserve what is already in place.
“We believe in private-property rights,” says Willis. “If, for example, a landowner has given you permission to access his land and then sells that land and the new owner denies access, well, that is the new landowner’s right.”
“Where PLAA comes into play,” he said, “is when you have been using a public access to get to public land and the adjacent landowner one day decides to put an illegal gate up and shut down the access.”
Willis encourages people who think they’ve been denied access in this way to get more information on the area. Obtain this information most of the time from government and state agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and MFWP. After verifying that it is, in fact, a public access that has been closed, then contact the PLAA, Willis said.
Over the last 10 years, PLAA has been to court on these public-land access issues 10 times. The group has won nine of those cases. PLAA has been in existence since 1985 and has more than 900 members.
For more information or to join PLAA, write to Willis at P.O. Box 2, Ramsay, MT 59748. Because most of the PLAA director’s time is donated and officers pay their own expenses, annual membership dues are only $10, or more if you choose.