Saturday, February 12, 2011

Adversary of the Sporting State: Montana Rep. Jeff Welborn

It's simple, really. Follow the money.

Now, in this case, it's not a hell of a lot of money, but after reading a post in Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing about a Montana state representative who's trying to undo much of the good that was done a couple years back, when the state Legislature finally cleared up exactly what "public access" was in Montana, even a little bit of money can make some folks undertake foolish errands.

So, here's what's happening (the short version). Rep. Jeff Welborn, a Republican rancher from Dillon, Montana, is trying to hamstring the state's incredibly foresighted public access law that allows anglers to follow navigable waterways on foot, so long as they stay within the high-water mark of those streams and access them from public rights of way (like a highway bridge, for instance). The big argument a couple years back was really over what constituted waterways, and what were deemed private "ditches" and off limits to the wandering fishers.

After years of legal wrangling that involved folks like pop-rocker Huey Lewis and his claim that Mitchell Slough on the Bitterroot River that runs through his property is actually a private impoundment (it ain't, Huey... you may believe in the Power of Love, but you apparently couldn't give a rat's ass about public access), the Legislature and then-state Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, a Democrat from Billings, made it clear what constituted public access and what didn't.

It was, for lack of a better term (and one that's generally foreign in Montana, anyway), progressive. It strengthened Montana's solid access laws, which only added to the Montana mystique among anglers. Great fishing. And, uh, you can actually get to it.

Montana Representative (and Hairclub for Men
 member) Jeff Welborn.
Well, rancher Welborn and his $17,000 political war chest (I said it wasn't a fortune, remember) went to work when the Legislature convened this year. It seems Mr. Welborn has an axe to grind–he doesn't want folks walking below the high-water mark on private land (his private land, perhaps?) chasing Montan's fabled trout. And he was paid over $3,000 by the livestock and the agricultural services and products industries to go to Helena and fight back against the obvious socialist agenda put forth by fishermen everywhere. And he's contributed nearly as much to his own cause–it's apparently THAT important to him. With help from similar mental midgets in the Montana House, Welborn has passed a bill that essentially throws Montana back into the uncertainty that led to the mess we were in just a couple years back.

This is, at best, blatant legislating on behalf of himself and a handful private landowners in southwest Montana who have their own interests at heart, and not so much on behalf of the people he claims to represent. In the grand scheme of things, how many ranchers in and around Dillon are negatively impacted by that reckless band of fly fishers who climb over highway guardrails and spend hours casting to feeding trout below the high-water mark on private land? Is it really so egregious? So high-impact?

Now, let's say Welborn's bill, now headed to the state Senate, where, coincidentally, Van Dyk now sets up shop (we can talk about the money HE spent to get that gig another time, but, honestly, folks, as far as I'm concerned, it was worth every penny) gains a second dose of insane approval. And then, let's say Gov. Brian Schweitzer signs this bill.

What's it worth in lost business to the folks in Welborn's district who stand to gain from progressive access to navigable waterways across otherwise private land? What's it worth in high-end whiskey at the Longhorn Saloon? How about the new hotels out there on I-15? What about the gas stations and smarmy little casinos? Restaurants? How about the poor soul at the fly shop who makes his sole living telling folks where to get in and get out on the Beaverhead or the Ruby? These are the folks Welborn represents, but I'm guessing they didn't pony up too much for his campaign. So, if you think about it, they're getting their money's worth.

This, if you think about it, is Montana's answer to the national debate over health care. The GOP in Congress is so damned determined to gut "Obamacare" that its members are ignoring some really important issues where progress is actually possible. In Montana, Welborn and his lot are so busy looking backwards that they're likely failing their constituents when it comes to issues that actually carry some importance (and it pains me, folks, to admit that me being able to get onto the Ruby River below the dam isn't really vital).

This is Welborn's fool's errand. He's wasted a month of taxpayer's time in a state where the Legislature only gathers every two years to do any substantive work. And he's taking a shot at sportsmen who come to Montana every year to experience "the Last, Best Place." If he's successful, Montana's new motto might just be "No Trespassing. Go Spend Your Money in Idaho."

And for that, Mr. Welborn is this week's Adversary of the Sporting State.


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