Land Access in Montana


Brent Mannix tells a modern version of an Aesop’s Fable about a western ranch coming up for sale:

A prospective buyer from out of town enters a coffee shop to ask about the ranch. “And what are the neighbors like?” he asks a table of older men. One turns. “Well, what are they like where you come from?” The man grumbles, “Oh, they aren’t great at all. They’re cliquish. They don’t get along. They put up gates, fences.” The old man thinks and says, “Well, I think you’ll find your neighbors here will be a lot the same.” Later, another potential buyer enters and asks the men a similar question. Again, an older man asks, “What are they like where you’re from?” The man replies, a smile lighting up his face, “Wonderful. Everyone there is honest and decent. They are so easy to get along with.” The old man replies, “Well, you’ll find your neighbors here to be just the same.”

Mannix has a penchant for lively conversation and a soft spot for the story’s moral since it was something his father taught him: work hard and treat your neighbors fairly. For the Mannix family, who has owned and operated the Mannix Brothers Ranch for three generations, hard work certainly lent itself to success: the ranch currently covers 12,000 deeded acres and leases another 30,000 to raise cattle in the heart of Montana’s Blackfoot Valley northeast of Missoula.

But Mannix believes treating his neighbors fairly has been more beneficial for all involved. And in his mind, these folks include not only bordering landowners, but fellow Montanans—fellow humans—as well. Which is why he’s been more permissive than many to allow hunters to access his land.

“There’s something rewarding about a person who has no connection or nothing to offer calling up and asking for something,” he says in a voice that’s eathern but kind. “And you give them permission not because you’re going to gain something. [You] just let them.”

Mannix’s example runs contrary to an oft-told story about access to public and private land in the West— a story fenced in and framed by conflict. And, thinks the public needs to hear more stories like Mannix’s; stories about people and organizations who, by demonstrating proud Montanan values, are creating positive, cooperative, “neighborly” change.

No one denies that conflict is present—land access is a deep-rooted debate mired in legal complexities, political views and personal values where both camps show signs of abuse and misunderstanding. The issue is unavoidably embedded in the West.

Last June, The New York Times touched on one of these nuances in “Who Gets to Own the West?,” an article that shed light on the trend of changing landownership as wealthy out-of-town families buy up large swaths of public land and often shut out public access. A theme in the thousands of comments the article received? The problem isn’t necessarily changes in land ownership, so long as access and Western neighborly values are preserved.

The Times story succeeds in stirring conflict but offers no answers to the questions it raises: What does it take to preserve access today in light of technological advancements, palpable value shifts and a need for economic diversification in the West?

A pair of hunters take to the field thanks to land access from local ranchers. Photo courtesy of RMEF

There’s something rewarding about a person who has no connection or nothing to offer calling up and asking for something.

At the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Joel Webster, director of TRCP’s Center for Western Lands, believes answers to these access questions have only just begun. But Montana is at the forefront of this work, becoming a place to watch as the issue evolves on the national stage and as the state continues to create opportunities for local, on the ground, constructive work that requires people respecting one another as they work toward an underlying shared goal. The effort is also complicated and takes time.

“At the end of the day, you can’t make a good neighbor … through legislation,” admitted Governor of Montana Steve Bullock. He knows it’s the kind of work that happens on the ground, “over a fence row or a cup of coffee. But if I have something to contribute,” Bullock said, “I should.”

This is why, as a Democratic contender in the 2020 presidential race, Bullock developed what he calls a “detailed and actionable” public lands policy initiative—one of the only candidates to do so. Within his plan are initiatives to protect and expand access, reverse rollbacks of national monuments, combat climate change, and fully finance the Land and Water Conservation Fund, among other proposals. It’s a concept bolstered by six years of experience as governor, where he unveiled a public lands and access agenda for Montana in 2016, and four years as attorney general in a Western state where he has remained a visible, vocal and successful supporter of public lands and access, recognizing it as an issue that transcends party politics and unites Montanans.

Bullock and others who interact daily with this issue all seem to imply that through difficulty, and even within conflict, lies opportunity. And Montana is seizing that opportunity.


Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been a cornerstone to collaboration between landowners, sportsmen and recreationalists for years, helping create an active center for the access discussion.

FWP’s Block Management Program is its most well-known and longest standing. Beginning in 1985 and significantly expanding in 1996, it makes public hunting available on private land, relying on landowners to offer access in exchange for compensation in the form of limited liability protection, funds to offset impacts from activity, or management assistance, among others. Some Block Management Areas, or BMAs, are self-regulated by hunters, while others require permission from the landowner or FWP.

Despite its success, Block Management only addresses one form of access and does not alleviate all points of conflict. The compensation for landowners reveals one of the most common disincentives to granting public access: potential impacts. These impacts, stemming from a handful of bad experience with irresponsible recreationalists, are a primary reason landowners pull access from their properties.

Take, for instance, one story that sticks with Jennifer Doherty, director of lands at the conservation and pro- hunting Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Although a private landowner had been successfully enrolled in the Block Management Program for many years, he faced everything from people off-roading on his property to typical fence disturbances. What eventually solidified his desire to leave the program was when an old homestead on his ranch was burned to the ground, Doherty remembers.

“This sort of behavior from the public is unacceptable,” she said. And these concerns—over gates left ajar, fences bent back, piles of trash left behind, trucks tearing up spring roads—are real enough for landowners to heavily reconsider allowing access to or across their land.

In order for Block Management or any public-access program to remain effective, landowners must be willing to participate, requiring trust and a mutual respect with the public. What begins with landowner frustration soon deteriorates into conflict, and all involved generally agree that the worst-case scenario is when a landowner gets so fed up he cashes out and subdivides. The key to avoiding this is ensuring all parties remain responsible and ethical, realize the land—and the challenge of access—deserves respect, and continue to roll up their sleeves and find constructive outcomes.

Jim Hagenbarth, partner in the family-owned Hagenbarth Livestock, which occupies nearly 70,000 acres of federal, state and deeded lands in Montana and Idaho, says all factions need to work together.

“If the state and federal agencies lose the willing public-lands rancher they lose a whole resource, one that promotes a working landscape that in turn supports rural communities and sustains wildlife. And when agencies lose that, they become even more hamstrung with their limited resources.”

So agencies rely on ranchers, who in turn rely on hunters to help control large and sometimes overpopulated ungulate herds, Hagenbarth explained. Hunters are critical components to wildlife management by keeping numbers in check, adding value and contributing to landowners’ intent to be good stewards of the land.

“We welcome people and think it’s important that they come out,” Hagenbarth said. “After all, we’re just caretakers of the land. Sure, I have a deed that says I own it but it’s just a package of property rights that society has given me. Those of us who have been on the land for years, we’re a part of nature so our first allegiance is to nature but the second is to society.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is a key supporter of public lands access. Photo courtesy of Steve Bullock Office
Participants in One Montana’s Master Hunter program practice their shooting skills as a part of the program’s curriculum. Photo courtesy of One Montana


Darlene Edge, the lands program manager for FWP, has seen her department stretched thin due to the growing interest in public access, too. A successful DiscoverMT campaign, led by the state’s Office of Tourism, has led to increasing numbers of people getting outside and using Montana’s bountiful outdoor resources … which has also led to overuse and irresponsibility. As a result, state and federal agencies have had to become more vigilant and hands-on in order to manage access on public resources, she said.

“Sometimes that means closing down roads or consolidating recreation into managed areas,” she said. “You see this in other states, too, with new permit systems that restrict access to certain places.”

Many Western states, including Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico have established Offices of Outdoor Recreation to encourage, expand and manage access to and stewardship of public lands for recreation. Montana took this one step further in December 2017 when Governor Bullock created a Public Access Specialist—currently Ryan Weiss—to work solely on opening up and improving public access across the state.

Hiring Weiss was one of the most significant steps Montana has taken on this issue, according to Zach Brown, program director of One Montana’s Common Ground program.

“While he doesn’t have the silver bullet, he can get people around the table and that’s powerful,” Brown said. “You don’t need a policy or a lawsuit or even an organization to fix this, you just need human beings being human beings.”.

FWP is also thinking about ways that diverse groups of recreationalists—kayakers, birdwatchers, hikers, mountain bikers—can help fund and maintain the land, too. Right now, hunters and anglers, through license purchases, excise tax payments and donations fund many department programs and important conservation work. But in order to also contribute to conservation and land management, permits or access licenses for other recreationalists could be in Montana’s future.

Although some frown on increased regulation and management of public resources, Edge says their sportsmen’s access programs have helped strengthen relationships between agencies, landowners and the public. Landowners tell her that hunters behave better when they’re in BMAs or accessing land through department-managed easements: they not only see stricter enforcement but also an opportunity they stand to lose.

“They realize they have a vested interest in that land staying open for their recreation,” she said.


Over the years, nonprofit and advocacy groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Western Landowners Alliance and One Montana have also stepped in to develop lists of recommendations, suites of tools and working programs to guide how landowners, the public, and state and federal agencies can work together.

Similar to Montana’s state-run programs like FWP’s Unlocking Public Lands Program and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Montana Public Land Access Network, RMEF also utilizes tools like conservation easements, access agreements, access easements and land purchases. But Doherty said the most important work is done on the ground and involves RMEF as an intermediary, listening to and meeting both sides where they are.

This type of work—that which proactively builds relationships and increases the level of commonality, education and investment in the land—has been the most powerful in creating change on this issue in Montana. One such program, called Master Hunter, was launched in 2018 by One Montana working group Common Ground.

The program’s six-week curriculum, which was developed by landowners, trains hunters to understand ranching, farming and forestry, noxious weed management, the North American conservation model, and state hunting regulations, in addition to helping them sharpen their shooting skills. So far, the program has graduated 90 Master Hunters who now have access to lands owned by 17 landowners. Beyond opening up access, the program’s most meaningful outcomes stem from an increased sense of commonality and understanding between all involved, Brown said. “We’re proving to landowners that there are thoughtful hunters and we’re showing the hunting community that there are open-minded landowners. That it doesn’t have to be divisive or us versus them as it is in the media or within interest groups.”

Wardens from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks explain issues they experience on a landlocked parcel outside of Bozeman each fall. Photo courtesy of Jess McGlothlin
Photo courtesy of RMEF

“We’re proving to landowners that there are thoughtful hunters and we’re showing the hunting community that there are open-minded landowners. That it doesn’t have to be divisive, or us versus them, as it is in the media or within interest groups.”

Among its other initiatives, Common Ground is also working closely with one ranch, Snowcrest Ranch in Montana’s Ruby Mountains, to create a service-for-access program. Brown explained that the ranch is currently struggling with conifer encroachment so in order to gain access, hunters help cut down conifers. Jake Schwalbe, a Master Hunter graduate, participated in two days of tree felling and says it was more than fair: he was giving back to the land as well, something he already loved.

Schwalbe also won a chance along with another Master Hunter to camp on the Snowcrest property and more easily access a remote stretch of public land for a three-day archery hunt. He ended up taking a cow elk, his first with a bow, and said it was an experience he won’t forget anytime soon.

Schwalbe, who grew up hunting near Helena on public lands but now lives in Billings, was initially intimidated by hunting on private property and usually kept away from boundaries.

The Master Hunter program, however, gave him a deeper understanding of ranching and the challenges of land ownership. Schwalbe walked away thinking of ways he could “mend some fences,” he said with a laugh, “literally and figuratively.” “What I really appreciated was that it’s always better, isn’t it, if you try to come to a solution that works for everyone? It makes everyone look better. As hunters, we recreate and love having access and landowners are just trying to run a business and take care of the land. Why would you drive a wedge between that?”


FWP also facilitates and funds similar annual service programs like erecting fences and cattle guards or building parking lots, which benefit access and show appreciation. That appreciation goes a long way toward maintaining these often fragile relationships.

“[Landowners] host the public’s natural resources and wildlife and that’s a huge honor and responsibility for them,” said Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Doherty. “It’s a job that deserves gratitude.”

Many don’t realize what landowners as well as state and federal agencies do on behalf of the public to keep these places accessible, protected and pristine, which makes it increasingly important that recreationalists on any type of land, public or private, are also good stewards.

“It’s rewarding to give someone permission without strings attached,” Mannix explained. “And on the same hand, I don’t like to be taken advantage of or to feel like I’m, or the land is, being taken for granted. Respect goes a long way for me, whether that’s shutting gates behind you or picking up your trash.”

And while a few bad apples can ruin the experience for the rest, Mannix believes that the positive interactions he’s had—and there are many—make it all worth the effort.

“There are families and hunting groups who bring gifts and treats, who buy us gift certificates to restaurants, who help with maintenance projects,” he said. “Those are just neighborly things to do. Those are the things out there to celebrate.”

Governor Bullock for his remaining time in office, and whatever lies beyond 2020 for him, remains committed to finding ways to celebrate and preserve Montana’s outdoor heritage and values, and thinks others can, too.

“We all own those lands equally,” Bullock said. “You don’t have to be from the West to recognize the importance of these places. But then being grounded in the West, as I am and have been, to not recognize the importance of these lands to our economy, to our environmental health, to our physical health and well being, I think we’d be missing something.”

Montanans, Westerners and Americans all stand on common ground: public lands and a uniting appreciation for them. Cooperation, collaboration and the programs that bring people together over coffee and kitchen tables go a long way toward helping folks realize a profound truth: the one thing they’ve been arguing over is because they all deeply love that same thing.

Claire Cella a New York state native, never imagined herself living in the West. Now after just four years here, she can’t imagine herself living anywhere else. When she’s not working for the Wyoming Outdoor Council in Lander, she’s outside enjoying the West’s exceptional access any way she can.