Liberate Montana’s Rivers

Montana’s rivers are in the spotlight this week as citizens fight to keep our rivers open to the public and to undo the grievous environmental damages of the past. The annual–but perhaps last–Milltown to Downtown Float on the Clark Fork takes place Saturday. The first–but perhaps annual–Montana Public Stream Access Day float/protest against those who think they can privatize the Ruby River happens on Sunday. Finally, the Mitchell Slough case is in court to determine if the Slough is a branch of the Bitterroot River to which Montanans have legal access, or a private irrigation ditch from which they can be shut out. Simply put, Montanans are up in arms over the treatment our rivers have received and are receiving, and they’re taking the initiative once again to ensure the future of the vital waterways that belong to all Montanans.

Of all these activities, the public access float on the Ruby River promises to be the most contentious. While it didn’t start the battle, the sleazy episode of the Cox Foundation’s “secret” letter to UM’s George Dennison threw gas on the stream-access fire. Covered extensively in the media, the episode began when the Cox Foundation wrote Dennison that it would not be giving any money to the UM School of Journalism because of Montanans’ attitudes toward out-of-state landowners over stream access. As it turns out, Atlanta millionaire James Cox Kennedy, the chairman of the media giant Cox Enterprises, owns a large amount of heavily barb wired and electrically fenced land on both sides of the Ruby River”fencing intended more to keep Montanans out than cows in.

When UM’s Journalism Dean Jerry Brown released the letter, Dennison demanded an apology. Only one problem, Dennison himself had sent the letter to Gov. Brian Schweitzer–a fact he adamantly denied and later admitted–to “inform him about perceptions.” Schweitzer, who campaigned promising to maintain hunting and fishing access for Montanans, was non-plussed by Dennison’s handwritten note, which said: “The comments reveal a rising level of concern from outside the state about comments made without much thought.”

The whole incident of a Montana university president chastising a journalism dean while pimping for an out-of-state landowner with an aversion to Montanans using their own public waters left a very bad taste–and most likely had a great deal to do with spawning the ongoing reaction. This Sunday, July 17, the first Montana Public Stream Access Day event is scheduled to “show support for Montana’s public access laws on public bridges and public roads.”

The float, which is sponsored by the Montana Public Lands/Waters Association, Skyline Sportsmen Association, and the Anaconda Sportsmen Association will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and end at Twin Bridges’ Jesson Park, where food and beverages will be served starting at 2 pm. Floaters can put in at either the Lewis Lane Bridge or the Seyler Lane Bridge”depending on how long a float they want to take”with the longer 11-mile float passing right through Cox Kennedy’s fortified property.

In his recent column, which contains links and details of the Ruby Float at http://www.billings, Billings Gazette writer Ed Kemmick asked: “Will it be a naval battle?” After you read some of the readers’ comments, you’ll see why Kemmick asked the question. But the organizers of the float are aware they are “under the spotlight” and intend it to be a peaceful, if forceful, exhibition of the value Montanans put on public access to public waters. As Jackie Corr, one of the float’s organizers, said: “Remember, wherever you live in Montana, the Ruby River is your river. If we don’t say “no, enough is enough” at the Ruby, we will soon be at the complete mercy of the ruthless predators who want to privatize everything in the state that serves and benefits the public good.”

Meanwhile, on a lighter note, the Clark Fork Coalition is holding its 4th Annual Milltown to Downtown Float Saturday, July 16, starting at 1 pm. This is a fabulously fun occasion for everyone, and was initially launched to show support for the removal of the Milltown Dam, the toxic sediments behind it, and the restoration of the natural confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers. If you haven’t done it, you’d better hurry because the clock is ticking on the old Milltown Dam, which, if everything goes according to schedule, may well be on its way to removal by this time next year. The float ends at either the Holiday Inn Parkside or the Doubletree Hotel, with a celebration afterward in Caras Park, right in the middle of good old Missoula, where the Community Party and Auction gets under way at 5 pm. This is always a great time where you can enjoy local brews and food while bidding on anything from a Tiffany watch to a Mad River Canoe. The evening will be topped off by sizzling jazz singer Eden Atwood and Blue Talk & Love. Details on the float are available at

And finally, there is the Mitchell Slough case currently being heard before District Judge Ted Mizner. The case opened Monday and pits the Bitterroot River Protective Association–which contends the Slough is actually a branch of the Bitterroot River, and hence publicly accessible waters–against some big money, out-of-state landowners who have decided Mitchell Slough is a private irrigation ditch from which the public can be excluded.

The opening salvoes saw the Montana Farm Bureau weigh in on the side of the landowners, while the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks testified that the Slough was indeed part of the Bitterroot River. “The bottom line is there was a stream here to begin with,” FWP’s Chris Clancy testified. “It’s still a natural stream, even if it’s been altered.”

Taken together, this is a big week for Montana’s rivers. Join the fight or simply enjoy the float, but remember, it’s up to us to keep our rivers clean and accessible.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, GEORGE OCHENSKI is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent. Contact Ochenski at



Float the part of the Ruby that James Cox Kennedy claims is his.

SUNDAY, JULY 17, 2005

For further information or to comment:
Contact Tony Schoonen at (406) – 782- 1560.
Or e-mail Jackie Corr at


















George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.