OPINION: Montana’s Stream Access – a Legacy Worth Protecting

Forty years ago, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed that the public may use rivers or streams – regardless of who owns the streambed or adjacent land – for recreation purposes. This is now known as Montana’s Stream Access Law, and it’s a beautiful thing. But we can’t take it for granted, as it continues to be challenged and threatened.

First, what exactly is the Stream Access Law? What constitutes recreation? And how are rivers and streams defined?

Following the Supreme Court’s establishment of the right, the 1985 Legislature determined that the public has a recreational easement over and across any land or water between a river’s “ordinary high water mark,” which is defined as “the line that water impresses on land by covering it for sufficient periods to cause physical characteristics that distinguish the area below the line from the area above it.”

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