Three new Ruby River access points offer water for everyone
TWIN BRIDGES – Howard Chrest and Mark Savinski, both of Sheridan, were happy to share what both see as permanent links for future generations to the great outdoors – two recently acquired permanent access points to the Ruby River, and a third access in the works – Sunday morning, June 3.
Their journey began at the Seyler Lane access near Twin Bridges, where a county road and bridge cross the Ruby River, well upstream of the river’s confluence with the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers, which together form the Jefferson.
These are places where an angler can enter the water to fish, where a canoeist or kayaker or johnboat captain could put into the river to float it.
They are permanent access points, Chrest and Savinski were quick to point out, for people now and for future generations. That’s what makes them important.
“When people cooperate, when there is compromise on both sides, good things happen,” Savinski repeatedly said.
Ruby River access
The history of Ruby River access is a story of change, according to Chrest, 78, a 30-plus-year resident of Sheridan, and Savinski, 64, who has been a resident since 2004, but began coming regularly to the area in 1990.
In the past, ranchers and landowners along the river were known to give access to anglers and others who offered a polite ask.
This system worked – so long as those asking for access respected the gratitude of the landowners and ranchers and didn’t litter, leave gates open so cattle escaped, or do stupid things like shoot up a place.
However, as newcomers to the last best place came to the Ruby River Valley and bought property along the river, they began declaring their little piece of heaven off limits to others. This took place despite a 1985 state waterways access law declaring that the public had a right to be in rivers and streams so long as they were within the normal high-water mark of the waterway.
Droughts and the need for irrigation water further complicated the issue during the 1990s. One early 2000s fishing guide for Montana notes the Ruby’s access issues and basically tells anglers to steer clear of the river downstream from two official Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) access sites, Ruby Dam and Vigilante. These two access sites are part of a 69-acre area leased by FWP for access to the river.
Compared to the 140-mile long Madison River, with 15 official FWP access sites, plus numerous bridge crossings, the 100-mile long Ruby has just five: Silver Springs Bridge, Ruby Island, Alder Bridge, Vigilante and Ruby Dam. Access was possible from bridges that crossed the river, but often – especially after new landowners replaced the understanding ranchers – these areas were fenced and “No Trespassing” signs sprang up.
This is where the Concerned Sportsmen of Madison County – essentially Savinski and Chrest and other like-minded sportsmen – came in. They wanted to create more access to the river, so future generations could enjoy the waterway they know and love.
Together with FWP, stakeholders like Trout Unlimited, county officials and cooperating landowners along the river, more access points were created.
During the last year, Savinski noted, three new access points have been created on the Ruby.
“Three points in a single year!” he said proudly. “Five or ten years ago, this would have been unheard of.”
But this change didn’t come without a struggle.
The new, permanent Ruby River access point at the Seyler Road bridge is a good example of such a struggle, Chrest and Savinski pointed out.
Seyler Road is a “prescriptive road,” Chrest said, a road with a long history going back to pioneer days as a wagon trail.
Normal county-sanctioned roads have a 60-foot right-of-way, which means 30 feet on either side of the roadway is county, hence public, land.
Because it is a prescriptive road, Seyler Road’s right-of-way is different, based on traditional uses, so it varies – 50 feet in one place, 44 in another, and so on.
For 15 years, out-of-state landowner James Kennedy battled access to the Ruby on Seyler Road in the courts on the claim that he owned the land up to the bridge, hence the public couldn’t legally cross his land to access the river.
Initially, lower courts agreed. However, when the case was kicked up to the state Supreme Court in late 2016, it was decided that, essentially, a public road crossing a public waterway equals public access. The bridge was surveyed and a 47.5 foot right of way was declared across the bridge, which permitted a permanent 5-foot-wide river access to be constructed on two corners of the bridge, one for upstream access, another for downstream access.
These accesses feature fencing that focuses access activities within that 5-foot corridor, so Kennedy’s land is not impacted, and includes a “roller” (PVC pipe fitted over a part of the fencing) to make sliding a canoe or kayak into the river a bit easier.
Safety concerns played a big role in how FWP designed the access, both Chrest and Savninski pointed out. The access is designed so anyone using it has good sight distance from both sides of the road.
Acquiring access points to the Ruby River, Savinski said, gives every person who wants to enjoy the river equality, rather making it a “socio-economic thing,” where only the well-to-do get access to the water.
“Public access is an ongoing issue” he said. “If people get involved and shoot for mutual cooperation, good things happen. This is really something for future generations. I want my grandkids to be able to enjoy this.”
Both Chrest and Savinski lauded a number of landowners along the river who currently provide access, including the Doornbos, Barnosky and Guinnane families.
At the second new permanent Ruby access point, at Laurin Bridge, landowner John Clark, the Morse Land Company and others worked with FWP to create the access point. This access focuses the impact of the access into an equally small space with a turnstile type of entry to keep it out of a cow pasture.
The third location, the Coy-Brown bridge, spanned the Ruby closer to Alder and supported a fully-sanctioned county road with a 60-foot right-of-way, Chrest and Savinski said. Access was to be placed here, they said, but the location was a good example of what used to be.
One side of the bridge was land owned by former late night television host David Letterman. A sign on his fence said no trespassing, yet it encouraged river users to stay within the legal high water mark limits. Not exactly a warm and fuzzy invite, yet somewhat kinder and gentler than a “Survivors will be prosecuted” sign.
On the other side of the road, the landowner’s fencing actually tied into the county bridge guardrail and sported a sign that barked a much sterner no trespassing warning.
Chrest and Savinski both noted that such signage was likely to scare off anyone who didn’t know about the state’s stream access laws. They also pointed out how difficult simply getting to the stream would be for a wading angler, let alone a kayaker or canoeist. He or she would have climb over a high fence or drop down over the bridge abutment, possibly slipping on rocks below and going into the drink.
Next, Chrest and Savinski got out a tape measure and Savinski stood roughly in the center of the county road, while Chrest pulled the tape out. About 17 feet from the center, they hit the fence that tied into the bridge guardrail, clearly a violation of the public’s right of way.
Some landowners claim the state is “taking” their land when access points are installed, Chrest said, but this often was not the case – as this access clearly showed the landowner was “taking” what is public ground.
Both men also said that legal battles over stream access only enrich the lawyers involved, because the public ends up using taxpayer money to defend what is rightfully theirs by Montana law in the first place.
“Montana has some of the best stream access laws in the nation,” Savinski said.
Both Chrest and Savinski repeated their mantra for access points, “See what good things happen when people cooperate.”