Hayduke, the movie


State land, Montana.

On his most recent episode of Hunt Talk Radio Randy Newberg got into an interesting local controversy, which as they discuss is just the latest iteration of an issue which has in Montana persisted and grown worse in recent decades.  Public land in the western US has been under assault since the early 20th century, and while it’s hard to make the case that current events are any more egregious than previous pushes to do away with these large tracts, that the current push takes place in the age of trophy ranches and an ever growing population in western states does make the situation today worthy of particular attention.

Once you have the background Newberg’s podcast is worth a listen.  It is also worth noting that he and his guest go out of their way to emphasize that by supporting Montanas stream access law they are in no way supporting the impingement of private land rights.  Montana’s stream access law, in brief, allows public access from any state or county road to any navigable waterway at any crossing.  That waterway can then be floated or waded on any water or land below the ordinary high water mark.  You can even camp, so long as you’re 500 yards from any dwelling.  Most western states are more restrictive.

The most significant provision in Montana law is the road-access provision, which is by most standards a reasonable infringement of private property rights, but is an infringement nonetheless.  Because of common sense, as well as historical precedent, conventional wisdom views this as an acceptable trace of socialism in land policy.  Along of course, with the public ownership of large portions of many states.  Most other forms of socialism are rhetorical poison.

This of course is why Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang has not yet been made into a film, in spite of multiple attempts over the decades since it was published.  It’s a more radical book than most realize, as it not only challenges the original formulation in the Declaration of Independence, but implicitly comes out against it.  There are some things, perhaps a number of things, which private land holders ought not be able to do.  Restricting access to publish land is one of them.  Montana’s stream access law is a good role model.  Another example, not yet put into place anywhere, would be required easements to any public land encircled by private holdings.  A third, which I got close to but did not mentioned last week, would be a ban on selling landowner hunting tags for any more than their retail cost.

In places like Utah large landowners are given tags to hunt their land, which seems logical enough.  Some of these ranches are in highly desirable zones, places where (as discussed here) math would suggest most will never be able to hunt.  Landowner tags in Utah (and elsewhere) can go for tens of thousands of dollars, often making the property valuable for no other reason.

The analogy is precise.  Someone buying a ranch which lies on both sides of a county road should not be able to close off stream access.  Someone buying a ranch which surrounds a parcel of state or federal land should not be able to turn said land into their own de facto kings woods by granting permission to only a select few.  Taking a step further, the state should not be able to build bridges and roads in certain places, as doing so inexorably and permanently (in human terms) ruins them for others.

Did Hayduke have a right to blow those bridges up?  It is not an easy question to answer, because it sticks right in the heart of a fat contradiction in the middle of American history.

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