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How nice would it be to have exclusive access to thousands of acres of public lands? Deciding who gets to hunt these lands, fish these streams, hike these trails or enjoy the solitude — that all sounds pretty great, huh?

So how might one gain this privilege and authority? Well, it’s pretty easy to do in Montana right now; just put up a gate on a public road that is used to access these public lands and voila; you’re now the king.

And even though you’d be in clear violation of the law, the recourse is so measly it’s virtually non-existent. For just $10 per day — the current fine for illegally blocking a public road — you too can have your own public lands kingdom.

But this isn’t a monarchy, or an oligarchy. This is a democracy. And we the people own these lands and demand legal access to them. Excluding the public for $10 per day is a joke.

From a hunting perspective, which is what the majority of these unlawful closures come down to — locking public hunters out of public lands — a lawbreaker could prevent access for the entire big game rifle season for less than $400 in fines. And how much do you think an outfitter would pay for exclusive access? Well, plenty to cover the fine, that’s for sure.

This is why Senate Bill 256, sponsored by Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, is long overdue. The bill would elevate the punishment for illegally blocking access to public lands as a form of harassment — which it is. While the monetary fine would remain low — lower than public landowners would like to see — the new punishment would come with some teeth in the form of possible jail time, and stricter penalties for repeat offenders.

Finally, a fine that better matches the crime.

We’ve watched this session as lawmakers have forwarded legislation that both expands the scope of what constitutes as trespassing and stiffens the punishments for trespassing; we sure hope these same legislators can now stick up for the public’s rights in the same way they’ve — rightfully — protected private rights.

There are already more than 3 million acres of public lands in Montana that Montanans can’t get to. We need to protect the rightful and legal access to the public lands that we can legally access. We can’t let this sort of bullying go unpunished.

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Chris McCarthy grew up in Augusta, MT and now lives with his wife in Belgrade. An avid hunter, angler and outdoor recreationist, Chris is the Gallatin Board Member for the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

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