Ducks Unlimited Dumps Access Advocate

It will be unfortunate if DU’s conservation mission suffers due to this misguided decision

By ROB BREEDING for the Flathead Beacon

Last week I wrote about a stream access decision in Utah. I tied it to the ongoing battle to preserve access to rivers and streams in Montana, a battle that has been nationalized by extreme private property rights groups. But I worried I was reaching when I linked the Utah case back to Montana.

I’m no longer worried, not after “Ducks Unlimited” magazine fired longtime columnist and Lewiston writer E. Donnall Thomas Jr. last week for criticizing James Cox Kennedy, the Ruby River landowner who has been denying anglers their right to access that river for more than a decade.

I’ve long been a fan of Thomas’ work, though I never subscribed to DU’s magazine. The organization comps the publications to many newspapers and as the outdoor guy in most of the shops I worked, it usually landed on my desk. I admire the magazine, and the organization. The focus for DU has always been on conservation, and while I’m only an occasional duck hunter, that wetlands work is important stuff.

Thomas’ gig for the waterfowl publication dates back to 2001, but the work that led to DU severing ties with one of Montana’s leading outdoor writers didn’t appear in that organization’s magazine. Instead, it was an article that ran in “Bozeman Outside” magazine titled “A Rift Runs Through It.” In the piece Thomas reminds us of what we already know: Kennedy has his sights set on Montana’s Stream Access Law.

You may recall that earlier in the Ruby fight the media mogul who owns Cox Enterprises, including the “Atlanta Constitution-Journal,” threatened to withhold support for the University of Montana Journalism School if Treasure Staters didn’t stop saying mean things about him.

Montanans didn’t back down, but DU did. According to an Associated Press story, DU told Thomas he was out because the magazine “simply cannot condone this type of vitriol directed by one of our contributing editors toward a dedicated DU volunteer, who is among the nation’s most ardent and active waterfowl conservationists.”

Kennedy is a big-time backer of DU. Good for him. But the notion that DU pulled the plug simply to protect one of the “family” from mean-spirited attacks isn’t believable. The contours of this spat remind me of the nasty battle inside Trout Unlimited a decade or so ago when the national organization told state chapters to stay out of access battles. It seemed wealthy donor don’t like the riffraff agitating for access.

Montanans made clear to the national leadership that access matters to membership and they weren’t backing down. Eventually TU big wigs reversed course and members across the country are free to put their efforts where they are needed, be it conservation work, or when necessary, to fight for access.

In a letter to Thomas, DU editorial director Matt Young chastised the writer for “presenting only one side of a complex subject.” We’ve heard that same “complexity” meme before. Many writers and friends of the landowners repeated it when public access was denied on the Bitterroot River at Mitchell Slough. That case was so “complicated” the Montana Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in a scathing decision against the landowners.

There’s nothing complicated about trying to take away the rights of average folk to hunt and fish. The intention is clear.

I’m not sure how this one will play out. It will be unfortunate if DU’s conservation mission suffers due to this misguided decision, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing blows up on them.

More important than money is the loss of credibility. If the narrative sticks that DU is turning its back on rank-and-file hunter/conservationists just to please a wealthy donor, wetlands, waterfowl and everything DU stands for will be the victim.


thumbRob Breeding writes an outdoors column for the Flathead Beacon newspaper in Kalispell.  He teaches journalism at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming.