FWP commission rejects Quiet Waters proposal

After almost a year of consideration and comment, a proposal to save some of Montana’s streams from the technological toys of the future has been defeated.

While considering the Quiet Waters Initiative on Friday, the three new members of the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission had their first taste of the contentiousness that can flare up in response to fish and wildlife proposals. Although the commission was originally scheduled to vote on the initiative, Chairman Dan Vermillion proposed to once again extend the public comment period to gather more information and give those new commissioners a chance to better acquaint themselves with the issue prior to voting. So that’s the thing he asked people to comment on.

Instead, the commission listened to four hours of comments from boaters across the state, most of whom went into all the reasons they opposed the proposal that sought to stem the tide of watercraft technology and keep things like jet skis and hovercraft of the future out of wild and winding tributaries that currently have no motorized use. Some opposed that because they don’t want restrictions of any kind. But the main snag was that the proposal also tried to limit the horsepower of boats, the types of boats or the times of year that they could be on some of Montana’s larger rivers including the Missouri, Yellowstone and Flathead.

That’s where the proposal ran into trouble with jet boat owners and groups like Walleyes Unlimited, the Montana Catfish Association and the Flathead Walleye Association. They saw the proposal as a threat to treasured recreation opportunities that already exist. Others claimed that it denied access to senior citizens and the disabled; it would ruin watercraft related businesses; and it was trying to get rid of conflicts that didn’t exist. Suspicions of many groups laced the comments.

“This is a blanket proposal of a vast amount of Montana that removes watercrafts and fishing vessels from use. I think at this time we don’t need more restrictions,” said Duncan Bartholomew. “People are saying their personal watercraft can be used but not mine. I see this as a sweeping move by specialized interests and possibly landowners who have come into this state.”

After Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers – the group accused of being a special interest - petitioned the commission to consider their initiative in March 2016, the public was given almost three months to comment and comment they did. More than 1,000 comments were opposed with one letter of opposition containing 648 signatures, while 423 supported the initiative. Many who spoke on Friday demanded that the commission reject the proposal based upon the overwhelming opposition, although Commissioner Shane Colton noted that most people didn’t oppose the whole initiative.

“More than a dozen that I’ve talked to this week who were in opposition, when we talked about restrictions off the Yellowstone, there wasn’t opposition,” Colton said. “I think it makes sense to give us more time to process this and see if there are areas of consensus - I suspect there are.”

It wasn’t just sportsmen’s groups and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who rose to speak. Among the 100 or so who spoke were also members of groups that often oppose public land, public hunters and the public’s wildlife: the Citizens for Balanced Use, the American Lands Council, the Property and Environmental Research Center and Americans for Prosperity. But it was BHA that commenters attacked as a moneyed, out-of-state special-interest group of entitled people who “weren’t true Montanans.”

“Apparently, one person’s special interest is another person’s concerned citizen. It seems hypocritical to single us out as the only special interest,” said BHA member Jeff Lukas. “BHA is not about limiting access to public lands. We are not saying nobody can access certain areas – it simply puts reasonable seasonal restrictions in place.”

Commenters didn’t just belittle BHA – they also accused some of the commissioners of having conflicts of interest and demanded that they recuse themselves. Commissioner Dan Vermillion is a fishing outfitter – fishing outfitters were also taken to task for being favored under the proposal – and commissioner Tim Aldrich is a BHA member.

Vermillion pointed out that one can only have a conflict of interest if they stand to gain monetarily from a decision. FWP could ask him to step aside but the department hasn’t.

“I wish I could say people were polite. Some were. But I received some of the rudest phone calls I’ve received in the 12 years on the commission with accusations that are simply baseless," Vermillion said. "I was not and am not in favor of the entire proposal. But there are elements that are really well thought out, and we need to find a forum where we can make these decisions. I don’t think that anyone thinks that Montana is going to get less popular in the future.”

The commissioners didn’t hear only negative comments, however. Supporters rose to say they wanted to preserve the traditional solitude of smaller streams for floaters, canoists and fishermen who like pursuing more timeless endeavors. And with the advent of new machines like flying hovercraft that can glide over water at up to 70 mph, they can see a time when no stream will be immune from the roar of machines. But many also acknowledged that parts of the proposal probably needed some changes.

“It’s not perfect by any means – there could be tweaks,” said Helena hunter Rick Hutton. “But if you look back at history in America; we’ve always been reactive. We’ve waited for a problem to occur and we reacted to it. I believe that Montana has been proactive in turning the tide with (hunting with) drones and two-way radios. So as far as non-motorized use on waterways that don’t have motorized use, I support this initiative to be proactive.”

But the arguments were too contentious for Commissioner Richard Stuker to support extending the comment period, and commissioners Aldrich and Logan Brower joined him in opposition. That forced the commission to approve, table or reject the entire original proposal. But all had already said they couldn’t support it, so the vote to reject was unanimous.

A number of the commenters who had been opposed said it restored their faith in the commission. But BHA representative John Sullivan asked if FWP could follow up on the parts of the proposal that many said they supported.

“Quiet Waters was intended to start a conversation about what we want our streams to look like in the face of change coming to Montana,” Sullivan said. “There was a lot of misinformation being sent out about Quiet Waters, what it really does. At least 90 percent (of the opposition) hadn’t read the proposal – they were just against it because they thought it was written by an out-of-state interest group. I assure it’s not because it probably would have been written better. Now where do we go from here?”