Supreme Court overturns Montana's river rights

Mar 2, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court just unanimously overturned the Montana Supreme Court’s decision requiring PPL Montana LLC (PPL)—an energy company—and other landowners, such as ranchers, to pay rent for the use of Montana’s riverbeds. The state of Montana and a number of environmental groups had argued that the state owned the riverbeds.

The argument was based on the centuries-old “equalfooting” doctrine which governs how states seeking to join the U.S. following the original 13 states are judged. Of particular relevance to this case was the stipulation of river ownership. Under the doctrine, states own rivers and their beds if the river in question is navigable in its entirety.

The Montana state Supreme Court contended that three rivers currently being used by PPL for their series of hydro-electric installations (some of them being over 100 years old) were navigable and thereby owned by the state.

Based on this rationale, the state was seeking over $41 million in rent from PPL for 2000 to 2007 alone. Though it was not directly stated, the concern was that the state may also seek back-rent for the years which PPL was using the rivers.

Montana claimed the Missouri River (the primary river of concern) to be fully navigable despite enormous waterfalls which historically halted the progression of Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 exploration of the territory. The Montana Supreme Court claimed the unnavigable sections of the river— notably the waterfalls where PPL had their hydro-electric operations—are “too short to matter” in the river’s overall navigability.

PPL countered that the state’s definition of navigable was flawed. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, and ruled the entire river could not be deemed navigable based on sections of it being so classed.

Had the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling been allowed to stand, the property rights of ranchers, farmers and the public in general could have been irreparably harmed by the precedent.

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) stated in a press release that the state’s claim represented an unconstitutional attempt to take property. Both the press release and MFBF President Jake Cummins called this a major victory in

A genetic marker for reduced susceptibility in pigs to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), the most economically significant disease in pigs, has been discovered by defense of the property rights of not only Montana’s farmers and ranchers, but property owners nationwide.

“There’s no doubt in my mind there would have been a lot of claims on other lands if this had gone through,” said Cummins in an interview.

Cummins commented that, while government attempts to take private property are numerous and varied, this issue was unique in its details and argument. He attributed the case going so far as it did to this novel nature.

Though the entity involved in this struggle was not an agricultural group, the precedent that could have been set would have had a huge impact on ag. Cummins commented on this angle as well.

“…The trend has been that people are demanding more and more from the ag community. Property rights is a bundle of rights, and we can keep some and give some up. But this is a victory that’s long overdue.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor