OPINION: Make Fine Match Crime of Gating Public Lands

By Joe Perry - February 23, 2019 - Originally published in the Billings Gazette

As far as real estate deals go, illegally gating a public road in Montana is about as cheap as it gets.

Under current law, violators risk a fine of only $10 per day to close off public access for their own personal benefit. Yet that paltry fine is never even levied because it would cost the county more to enforce it than the amount of the fine. As a result, bad actors can close off access to public roads with little to no repercussions.

That is a sweetheart deal for those seeking to create exclusionary havens of prime hunting and fishing opportunity, by shutting off public access to public land. Unfortunately, there are some landowners across Montana who are willing do just that, and in doing so they threaten to undermine the rule of law and they put the county’s resources and personnel in jeopardy by ignoring a judge’s declaration regarding their illegally closed county roads.

As a private landowner, I’m dismayed by a few bad actors who would shut down access to public lands. That’s why I wholeheartedly support SB224, a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, to increase the daily fine for illegally gating a public road. The fine of $10 per day was set in 1965. It’s long overdue to increase that fine to something meaningful that will actually serve as a deterrent. Senate Bill 224 gives local justices the discretion and flexibility to issue fines of up to $500 per day.

This is common-sense legislation that would effectively dissuade violators from excluding hunters, anglers and other users from lands that are rightfully theirs and the penalty increase would provide law enforcement and county commissioners with the tools necessary to reopen roads that been illegally gated for years.

Illegally closed public roads can create life-threatening delays for first responders, wildland firefighters and law enforcement responding to emergencies. They keep sportsmen and women from getting to their family’s elk camp and the streams where they teach their kids how to fish. There is no good reason for continuing to allow this behavior to persist in Montana.

I am a private landowner who also respects and chooses to recreate on public lands. I also take comfort in knowing that first responders can easily access public lands adjacent to my property in the event of an emergency.

Please join me in supporting SB224. It’s time for the fine to match the crime.

Joe Perry, of Brady, is a private landowner and Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers member.

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