Anti-Gianforte public access bill gets hearing in Legislature
New Jersey millionaire's lawsuit prompts legislation to increase fines for blocking public access
This bill hearing comes months after it surfaced that New Jersey multimillionaire and failed candidate for governor Greg Gianforte sued the people of Montana to eliminate an easement that provides public access to the East Gallatin River.
Rep. Tom Jacobson (D) of Great Falls introduced HB 295 that takes one step toward preventing out-of-state millionaires like Gianforte from blocking public access to Montana’s public lands, rivers and streams. The legislation increases fines for landowners who block public access by fencing off county roads and other public rights of way.
“Public access is one of the biggest issues that we face. We know its important for our constituents, for the folks in Montana and we know that there are people who for one reason or another who would like to block that public access,” said Rep. Tom Jacobson at the hearing.
The Anaconda Sportsman's Club, Montana Association of Counties, and Helena Hunters and Anglers spoke in support of the legislation.
"It is time for millionaires like Greg Gianforte to know that if they block public access they will face heavy fines,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. “Montana sportsmen and women should not be denied their Constitutional right to access Montana’s public lands, rivers and streams."
Gianforte came under fire from Montanans across the state when documents from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks showed that Gianforte "fenced off" and "actively excluded" the public from accessing a public easement to the East Gallatin River.
Shortly after Gianforte fenced off the public access easement, he filed a lawsuit to “eliminate” it arguing that the original 1993 agreement by the previous owner was invalid and that the public right of way was “unnecessary.”
In addition to suing to block public access, Gianforte has given thousands of dollars to special interest groups that have worked to sell off our public lands and undo public access laws:
- Gianforte donated thousands of dollars to Foundation for Research on the Economy and the Environment (FREE), Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the Heritage Foundation that have fought to privatize national forests and sell off public lands.
- In 2014, Gianforte gave money to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) and touts the organization on his foundation's website. PERC has a long history of working to undo Montana’s stream access laws:
- In 2012, PERC filed an amicus brief against a sportsmen group and Madison County over access to Ruby River, near Sheridan, from a bridge on the property of billionaire James Cox Kennedy.
- In 2014, PERC attacked Montana's Supreme Court decision to uphold the constitutionally protected right of public access to waterways.