Supreme Court to Decide Case with Nationwide, Flyfishing Implications

December 5, 2011 By: Benjamin Clary

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could have a significant impact on river access across the country.

Some background: On March 30, 2010, in PPL Montana v. Montana, the Montana Supreme Court decided that the State of Montana owned the riverbeds of three Montana rivers: the Missouri, Madison and the Clark Fork.  Because the waters are navigable, the court stated, the state is the rightful owner of the riverbeds, not the PPL Montana, the owner of hydroelectric dams on each river.

To determine whether the waters are navigable, the court stated that one must determine whether they were navigable at the time of statehood.  To show that the rivers were navigable at Montana’s statehood, the state produced a history of navigation dating back to the days of the Lewis & Clark expeditions that stated the rivers run through “such a mountainous country and at the same time are so navigable as they are.”  Billings Gazette.

At stake for the participants is $40 million in back rent PPL Montana would owe the state if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Montana high court’s decision.  However, at stake for flyfishers is the privatization of three iconic Montana rivers.  And following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in their favor, owners of hydroelectric dams nationwide may use the decision as precedent for further action in states other than Montana.

More information can be found at SCOTUSblog including a link to the Montana Supreme Court’s decision.  Richard Frank, renowned environmental and land use law expert, wrote this blog post when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.