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Ravalli County to hire out-of-state water rights attorney
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Ravalli County to hire out-of-state water rights attorney

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The Ravalli County commission decided Tuesday to get some out-of-state help in its fight to challenge the Bitterroot National Forest Service’s filings for new water rights on headwater streams.

The commission voted unanimously to accept up to $1,500 in private funds to hire the Wyoming-based Budd-Falen Law Offices as a consultant.

The commission established the fund in October following a phone call from attorney Karen Budd-Falen to a commissioner.

At the time, Budd-Falen reportedly said she had been contacted by Ravalli County residents concerned about the federal government’s pending water rights applications. She claimed residents were willing to donate their own funds for her to assist the county.

Budd-Falen specializes in cases pitting private property landowners against state and federal government land management agencies.

At Tuesday’s meeting, County Commissioner Ron Stoltz said Terry Ryan of Hamilton donated to the legal fund.

The commission also voted to challenge the latest Forest Service water rights filing on Boulder Creek.

The county has objected to a number of water rights filings on headwaters streams on the Bitterroot Forest since May. So far, the state has denied all their objections due to a lack of standing.

The Bitterroot National Forest is working through a process outlined under a 2007 water rights compact between the state of Montana and the Forest Service, which allows the agency to file for in-stream water rights on national forest lands.

Under the terms of the compact, the in-stream flow rights are junior to any other water right claimed on the stream. The claims stop at the national forest boundary and are non-consumptive.

Since last spring, the commission has maintained that since the Bitterroot is a closed basin, the federal government shouldn’t be allowed to seek new water rights.

“Citizens should have the right before the government to that water or at least an equal right,” said Commissioner Greg Chilcott. “Since this is a closed basin, the government is stepping in and getting what no one else can obtain.”

Commission chair Jeff Burrows said the county will look to refine the language in its newest appeal on Boulder Creek in an effort to try to gain standing.

“People are starting to pay attention to this,” said Commissioner Suzy Foss. “I’m starting to get calls from people about it.”

Kristine Reddin of Darby urged the commission to take a different route in an email read into the record Tuesday.

She urged the commission to avoid hiring the Wyoming firm and not appeal any water rights on tributaries filed by the Forest Service.

“Our county government has no business getting involved in water rights,” Reddin wrote. “If anyone that holds a water right on Boulder Creek (or the Bitterroot River, or any other source) has a concern regarding the USFS filing, then let that personal party pay their $25 to file an objection. It is that simple and that cheap.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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