PLWA lauds public access ruling
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: July 6, 2016

From the Public Land and Water Association



PLWA, once again, has been victorious in the battle for the public’s stream access on the Ruby River, from the Seyler Lane Bridge, likely the original stagecoach route from Salt Lake City, north to Virginia City and Helena. 

It has been over a decade that PLWA (formerly known as PLAAI) has been involved in a lawsuit over public access to the Ruby River from Seyler Lane and the Seyler Bridge, a public prescriptive easement right-of-way in Madison County.

In PLWA’s January 2014 victory, the Montana Supreme Court reaffirmed Montana’s Stream Access Law, clarifying that the public may use the entirety of the public prescriptive easement right-of-way for all lawful public purposes. It also remanded the Ruby River action back to the District Court to determine the “definite width of a single, unified” public road right-of-way that was not determined at the previous trial. Per the Supreme Court, the width must include whatever land is “reasonably necessary” to maintain and support the established public road and bridge and the land that has historically been used by the public. 

Which brings us to the present District Court ruling. In the June 27, 2016 filing,  District Court Judge Loren Tucker determined the easement widths over the various parts of Seyler Lane and the bridge. From Judge Tucker’s ruling, “Now therefore it is hereby ordered as follows: 1. The width of the county road known as Seyler Lane at sections described and shown on Exhibit 1-A are as follows: A-A 50 feet, B-B 50 feet, C-C 39 feet, D-D 47.5, E-E 47.5 feet, F-F 44 feet, G-G 65 feet, H-H 50 feet, I-I 50 feet.”

PLWA’s attorney, Devlan Geddes explained, “We asked for 47.5 feet and 46 feet in width at the ends of the Seyler Bridge. He granted us 47.5 feet at both ends (see decision at D-D’ and E-E’). The other widths are mostly irrelevant to our concern of access to the river.”

“This is a victory for PLWA, because the Court confirmed that Montanans may lawfully access the Ruby River from within the Seyler Lane right of way. The 47.5′ width determination provides a sufficient path at the corners of the bridge that members of the public may access the river,” stated Geddes.

A long and hard fought access battle against Madison County and Intervenors: Montana Stockgrowers Association, Hamilton Ranches, Inc., and Atlanta billionaire, James Cox Kennedy, who stated he owns the air space above the river, that stream access was a “taking”, and that Montana’s Stream Access Law was “unconstitutional”,   making this victory all the sweeter.

In 2004,  James Cox Kennedy, a major stockholder in the Cox Communications empire and owner of a 3,200 acre ranch on the Ruby river in Madison County, took action to stop the public from entering the river on his property. One of the three public road bridges crossing the Ruby River, Seyler Lane, was wired up to keep people from accessing the river – including electric fences at some places. On July 17, 2005, stream access advocates, led by Tony Schoonen of Butte, organized a protest float on the Ruby River, Stream Access Float Day. They put in at the Seyler Lane Bridge, to assert the public’s right to the water, rafting about 10 miles. 

One of the access advocates at that protest float that day, almost 11 years ago, was Lawrence (Lorry) Fredrick Thomas of Anaconda. Lorry, a stream access champion, one of the founders of the Coalition for Access to State Lands and the Coalition for Stream Access, that birthed our Stream Access Law, as well as a longstanding President of Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club, died on June 28th, at 88 years, before getting to share in this latest hard fought Seyler Lane Bridge/Ruby River victory.

From the Montana Standard article, “Schoonen worked with Thomas for three decades, with each of them backing each other on projects despite, he said, Butte and Anaconda’s historic rivalry. ‘When I was president of the Skyline Sportsmen and Lorry was president of the Anaconda Sportsmen, we figured out that when you’re working with the Legislature it’s better to show numbers,’ Schoonen said. ‘He’d always hustle some guys from Anaconda to go over with him and I’d hustle some guys from Butte.’ ”

” ‘Lorry was always the first one to volunteer to help with anything in the community,’ said Mark Sweeney, who moved to Anaconda in 1986 as a new employee with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. ‘There are definitely big shoes to fill, but I think he’s left a legacy and young people are going to have to learn his leadership and step up to fill those shoes. And Lorry’s done that, he’s prepared young people well to meet the future generations’ needs of public access.’ ” Read More

Lorry Thomas and his passion for public access in Montana will certainly be missed.

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