Fishing Access Sign, stock

It seems that the attempt to secure a Bitterroot River public fishing access site at the bridge just to the west of Stevensville has reached an unsolvable impasse – maybe! I say maybe because the public interest makes it absolutely critical that a permanent access site be secured there. Otherwise, there will be no public ability to get to this critical recreation treasure for a 20-mile stretch on one of the most popular and heavily-used sections of the Bitterroot.

For sure the landowner involved in a proposed land swap has given the Town of Stevensville and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks – and the public – an ugly ultimatum: his way or no way insofar as the deal involving his land adjacent to the bridge goes. Accept his self-serving offer, he says, or he’s going to block off public access to the 3.5 acres of his land adjacent to the bridge where the public has enjoyed access to the river for as long as a bridge has been there.

Fishermen, floaters, outfitters, families and their children, playful dogs and their owners, and recreationists of all stripes have accessed and frolicked in the Bitterroot there for years upon end. Most have been good citizens in regard to that river use. Most, also, have appreciated and respected the private property involved. But some have not. A very, very few have caused problems of littering on occasion and on even a fewer occasions some have trespassed onto the landowner’s adjacent property, and the landowner claims he simply wants to be rid of the problems that access property brings him.

However, he has proposed an incredibly unfair resolution – a trade, a land swap wherein he would get almost double the value in land along the river in both size and value – 8 acres to the north of his 3.5 acres. And he has repeatedly refused to consider any other resolution put before him, like, for example, a direct buy-out of his 3.5 acres.

To this point in time, any overture that’s been made to Roy Capp, the landowner, has been dismissed: accept his original proposal he says or he’ll close the access site down. Period. His way or no way! So, that’s why I used the word “maybe” in the first paragraph. If this has truly become an unsolvable issue, then it’s time for the other two key parties involved – the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Town of Stevensville – (the public is, at this point, an almost powerless victim in this issue) – to protect the public interest and move ahead promptly with one of the other two options available to them, either one of which is workable:

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• Locate the access site on the Town of Stevensville property immediately to the north of the current access site (that critical 8 acres). Right-of-way through Capp’s property is guaranteed to the park even if he closes access off to his 3.5 acres and FWP acknowledged that while there are some problems connected with making this site work, it is doable. It’s workable, and it would give the public good access to the river.

• A piece of land directly across the river to the west is also available for an access site, though it would require considerable landscaping to make it work. However, at this point FWP has indicated it would not favor this site because it would cost more to develop it, though the agency also has acknowledged that it can be done there..

Whatever, inaction and no decision is not in the public interest. An access site on the river at Stevensville is vital to the well-being of that community and all who use this wonderful river resource. FWP and the Town of Stevensville need to move promptly to secure this vital resource for this and future generations. 

Dale Burk is a Stevensville-based writer and fisherman who has been involved in helping establish public access sites on Montana streams, several along the Bitterroot River in fact, since moving to the Bitterroot Valley in 1968. He has specifically worked toward getting a permanent site near Stevensville since the mid-1990.s.