Thomas Gallatin / November 29, 2016

A Not-So-Simple Western Land Dispute

The struggle to balance private property rights with public access.

The Washington Examiner recently ran a story about a ranch owner in Montana in a legal dispute with the government over private land rights. The crux of the issue is allowing public access to national forest land. Understandably, the Examiner’s story takes the angle that the big, bad government is once again acting like a bully stealing from the little guy. The complete picture, however, is that the situation is much more nuanced.

Montana has a long history of dealing with what at times has become a sticky question of landowners’ rights versus the right of the public to access public land. Over two million acres of public land in Montana are inaccessible except via roads or trails that cross over private land. The Crazy Mountains in southwestern Montana are an area where this public versus private tension has flared up in recent years. Over the past couple decades, certain areas of the state have seen a significant growth in population, bringing with it an increase of traffic that has been especially evident on some of these public access roads, at times causing problems for land owners.

The rights of private property owners should never be easily supplanted or limited simply to appease the desires of “the public.” Private land owners in Montana often have good reasons for seeking to limit or shut down access through their property. However, the public also has the right to enjoy public lands for hunting, hiking, camping, etc and compromise needs to be sought when the two come into conflict with each other. An example of this kind of compromise is seen at Ted Turner’s Flying D ranch. This 113,613 acre ranch has public access roads through the property to thousands of acres of public lands in the mountains southwest of Bozeman that would otherwise be inaccessible.

When disputes such as private property rights versus the interest of the public arise, it’s often the case that the governing authorities become involved. By no means are the government’s interests always correct, but neither is it true that the government is automatically in the wrong. Unfortunately, with recent examples such as the overreach of the EPA or the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, it’s easy to assume the government’s interests are always self-serving attempts to gain more power and control.

A decentralized government with well-established local authorities governs better and more fairly than a large, distant, centralized government that has less ability to appreciate the many nuances of differing regions and local disputes.

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