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Don't Fence Me Out : Much of the West Is Still Public Land, but You Can't Always Get There From Here

December 09, 1990|Grace Lichtenstein | Grace Lichtenstein is a New York-based writer

THE SHOWDOWN at Sixteenmile Creek was shaping up as a modern-day version of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. On one end of a damaged wood bridge stood a Montana rancher, his video camera aimed at 14 outdoorsmen massed on the other end. The hunters and fishermen had come to replace the planks the rancher had knocked out of the bridge and to tear down the barbed wire he had strung up to keep strangers away from his brother's cattle ranch.

And Ronald B. Stevens, leader of the outdoorsmen, was not about to back down. "Bill, we're going to remove that fence," Stevens said. "So if you want to call the sheriff, you better call him now." With that, Stevens and his companions spent an entire summer's day ripping up barbed wire and mending the bridge while Bill Brainard, the rancher, shot video footage to show his lawyers later.

At stake was entrance to hunting and fishing areas along Sixteenmile Creek, a stream about 45 miles northwest of Bozeman. Finally, though, Brainard's tape never saw the light of day. Instead of calling in the law and going to court for his brother, who lived in Seattle, he simply allowed the bridge to be rebuilt and remain open.

The confrontation at Sixteenmile Creek a year ago was resolved peacefully. But it is a good example of a conflict being played out all across the United States. The battle pits landowners entitled to privacy and control of their own property against outdoorsmen entitled to access to public lands. Few Americans realize that many of the roads leading through or to their favorite woods, beaches and fishing streams cut across someone's land. Twenty years ago, it didn't matter much. Farmers and ranchers, especially in the West, traditionally allowed unrestricted access through their property.

But the Western ethic is changing rapidly as use of the wide-open spaces increases. More people, particularly urban dwellers, want to make a home away from home on the range, and more landowners want them to go back where they came from. As the conflict has intensified, others have been drawn into the fray: public officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, environmentalists who see threats to wildlife and public resources, and so-called outfitters, who depend on out-of-the-way, well-stocked game preserves to make a living as wilderness guides.

The private-versus-public issue has cropped up in Colorado, where an Aspen landowner and local groups have fought for more than two years over passage to Hunter Creek, a popular picnic area. Three years ago in Idaho, singer-songwriter Carole King provoked a furor by winning the right to close a road, leading to the Salmon River, on her ranch in the Sawtooth Mountains. Last year in Wyoming, a band of residents marched to the top of Elk Mountain to protest a rancher's plan to build a private "safari" resort around the peak, which is U.S. Forest Service land. Farther west, the public's right to walk to river banks and beaches has triggered dissension along the American River near Sacramento and along the coastline in Oxnard Shores. The state established the coastal commission in 1976 to handle multiplying conflicts over access to California's more than 1,000 miles of beach.

But nowhere is the controversy over access to public lands more heated than in southwest Montana, a breathtaking panorama of snow-dusted mountains intersected by gorgeous valleys through which some of the finest fishing streams on the continent flow. It is here that large parcels of ranchland have been bought in the past few years by the rich and famous, including movie stars Dennis Quaid and Brooke Shields and media heavyweights Tom Brokaw and Ted Turner (who bought a 128,000-acre Montana ranch in 1989).

The controversy "verges on open warfare," according to a recent study by the National Wildlife Federation. Who are the combatants? On one side are the people for whom government property is one enormous playground. Hunters, fishermen, backpackers and bird-watchers flock to the open spaces in a quest for trophy elk, fat rainbow trout or simply a bit of solitude. Many of these outdoorsmen arrive on foot and don't want roads to their favorite places built. Yet each season, they are disturbed to find new fences smeared with orange paint--the Montana no-trespassing symbol--which prevent them from reaching thousands of acres they have visited in the past.

Like outdoorsmen, motorized sportsmen--snowmobilers, dirt bikers and 4-wheel-drive enthusiasts--are eager to head for the hills, if only for a day or a weekend. Once there, however, they sometimes build fires where they shouldn't; leave gates ajar, allowing livestock to wander off, and shoot rifles indiscriminately.

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