Huey Lewis and the Slough

by Rebecca Schmitz

It’s been a long time since the words “packed house” and “Huey Lewis” have appeared in the same article, but that’s just what happened Wednesday. The state’s Supreme Court heard the arguments in the infamous case that pitches Montana sportsmen against local landowners. They hinged on the definition of “natural”.

Lawyers for those who want public access to the slough, which flows through private farmland south of Stevensville, said Wednesday that just because a river or stream has been manipulated by man does not exempt it the state’s stream access law. If so, many waterways and major rivers would be exempt. “There is no such thing as natural in the Bitterroot Valley anymore,” said lawyer Jack Tuholske. Lawyers for the landowners countered that the slough is really like an irrigation ditch, displaying sketches, photographs and aerial views of the slough as evidence. “Recreationalists get to recreate on natural waterways, that’s the deal,” said lawyer John Warren.

I think we can all agree that the floor of the Bitterroot Valley is one of Montana’s most heavily manipulated and developed landscapes. Beginning with the Big Ditch and the apple orchard boom of the 1900s and 1910s up to today’s healthy crop of McMansions, the Bitteroot has long since ceased to be completely “natural”. The right lawyer could argue almost any body of water in this area isn’t natural. A decision in the landowners’ favor would open the door to other waters being placed off-limits to the public. Then we all lose. If Lewis wins his case, Montana’s fishermen might just have to start singing another song, like, “I Want a New Court”.


  1. Speaking of those apple orchards, if you’d like to take a nice weekend drive up the Valley stop at one of the oldest (and perhaps greatest): Swanson’s Mountain View Orchards east of Corvallis. Their Bitterroot Macs and apple cider are ready!

    Mountain View Orchards
    1795 Mountain View Orchard Rd
    Corvallis, MT 59828
    (406) 961-3434

  2. It’s been a long time since the words “packed house” and “Huey Lewis” have appeared in the same article…


  3. Thank you! I’ll be here all week!

  4. Big Swede

    I’m worried about the courts siding with you guys. As a land owner with irragated river bottoms, a decision premitting right of trespass along or in man made ditches or canals, opens more cans of worms.

  5. That’s why it’s important to decide what’s natural versus man made. According to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and local Bitterrooters Mitchell Slough is not entirely man made. I have no problem with exempting from the Stream Access Law a canal or ditch a landowner specifically built for irrigation on his or her private property. However, if that canal was originally a natural wetland or backwater previously accessible to the public (like Mitchell Slough), then it should be open up to the high water mark just like any other stream, lake or river.

  6. Big Swede

    Lookit, this is clear across the state from me so I’m at a disadvantage. To me and Mr. Webster a slough is a river inlet with no outlet, a mire, backwater or swamp. This, I take it was its original (or natural) condition. I’m guessing that through man made improvements this backwater was made into a flowing tributary by some mechanical means. Fishing in this deadended slough was probably much worse or even nonexistant prior to the landowners improvements. Now that the fishing has improved and everyone wants rights of trespass. Is this an accurate discription of what has happened?

  7. Big Swede

    The original survey done along my river front farm was done in 1911. The path of the river is nowhere close to what it was back then, in fact, you could prove geologically that river beds and sloughs where miles away thousands of years ago. If any seeps or springs exist in those places are they open to the public for fishing also?

    If Huey, or the previous land owner, manipulated the stream flow to improve the fishery, could he also damn or divert it? I’m thinking that Huey, after losing this, could “dry up” Mitchell, pipe or ditch water futher into his property away from the public, and start over. Which getting back to my first comment, may restart more lawsuits.

  8. According to the articles I’ve read, Mitchell Slough was once a branch of the Bitterroot River. People have been fishing it for decades–long before Huey Lewis, Charles Schwab and others brought the private property surrounding it. A good article about the history of the Slough (and the lawsuit) is available online thanks to High Country News. Just click this.

    If I understand the implications of the article, since Mitchell Slough was once a natural waterway Lewis and other landowners cannot “dry up” Mitchell Slough without applying for a lot of permits. Therefore, it’s not something they can do overnight without public input.

  9. Big Swede

    Thanks for the link, as I originally thought this decision involves more than the Mitchell Slough but all other developed ditches, canals, and man made waterways. Quoting the gov,”I’m not an adovate of opening irrigation ditches and canals across the state for fishing.”

    Here’s the article and the context of which it was said.

  10. Big Swede

    As long as I’m taking over here, I’ll throw this one in too. Fishing going to be great in this state if these guys get their way.

  11. I don’t the think the vision of the group in your second link is ever going to pass at the rate that our population continues to grow. As for the first link, this quote grabbed my attention:

    “My preference would be no more lawyerin,'” Schweitzer said.

    Lawyerin’? Come on, Brian. I know you’ve got a certain image and all, but use your big kid words.

  12. Suzie

    Who is Huey Lewis? I’ve heard of the Slough! Don’t they have a new album out?

  13. Big Swede

    Weren’t the lyrics, “Old back water, keep on growing, Montana moon keepa shinning on me.”

  14. Aaron

    You know this is just sad on your guys part – Huey Lewis was one of the biggest bands around i the 80’s and hes been doing fine ever since AND the fact that you just so happen to pick him to bring this up on is also sad – Tom Cruise used to live hear in Montana too and he owned a large body of water that he allowed no-one else on.

    Oh and BTW If you don’t like Huey Lewis and the New’s songs, you have no taste in music

  15. Aaron

    and one more thing – does anyone know this address so i can see this apparent “mutation” of the land

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