Access Denied: Ethical Considerations as Montana’s Citizens are Cut Off from Public Lands

by Project Censored

According to a recent article in the Independent Record and a jointly published report by the Montana Wildlife Federation and Public Land/Water Access Association, citizens of Montana are all too frequently finding themselves excluded from their favorite outdoor areas as private landowners gate off public roads that cross their property.  Lengthy and difficult legal battles being too costly for the average citizen to pursue, the result is that Montanans are routinely being denied the ability to enjoy thousands of acres of public land.

In her article entitled “Report: Gates keeping Montanans out of public land,” Independent Record reporter Kelley Christensen (2014) writes that “[t]hese rural roads have often for decades been used by ranchers to move livestock as well as by the public for recreation purposes.”  Christensen’s article highlights the efforts being undertaken by the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Public Land/Water Access Association to advocate for the public’s right to access public land.  The report issued by those organizations, “ROADBLOCKED & LANDLOCKED,” further highlights the frustrations Montanans experience as their outdoor plans are thwarted by private land owners.  ROADBLOCKED & LANDLOCKED” author Nick Gevock, who is the director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, provides numerous detailed examples of road closings by landowners.  In one such example, Gevock (2014) describes a case in Fergus County involving the installation of a locked gate across the Mabee Road, a route shown on maps from the early 1900s.  The rancher who closed off the road “block[ed] public access to some 25,000 acres of public land…[and] operates an outfitting and guide business on the land to which he now has exclusive access” (p. 3).  Apparently this is not an isolated incident, but an all-too-common occurrence.  For instance, the Bullwhacker Road in Blaine County which “has been used…for half a century…serv[ing] as the only reasonable access to over 50,000 acres…in the Missouri River Breaks” (Gevock, p. 4) has been barricaded and since ruled a private road.  The legal actions required to re-open such access routes often involve years of effort and expense, during which time the public is denied the usage of those lands that are rightfully theirs.


Christensen, Kelley (2014, September, 12). Report: Gates keeping Montanans out of public land. Helena, MT, Independent Record.

Gevock, Nick (2014, September). ROADBLOCKED & LANDLOCKED how Montanans are being kept out of their public lands. Helena, MT, Montana Wildlife Federation. Billings, MT, Public Land/Water Access Association. -and-landlocked-report/pdf_0d26bbfa-afc5-534c-a3c9-2e29de39e3a4.html.

Cohen, Elliot D. (2000). Philosophers At Work: Issues and Practice of Philosophy (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Student Researcher: Robert M. Jernigan, Jr, Indian River State College
Faculty Evaluator:
Jared Kinggard, Ph.D., Indian River State College

Ethics Alert

Looking beyond the legal and constitutional ramifications of this trampling on the public’s right to pursue happiness in the great outdoors, there are some important ethical considerations.  According to utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the opposite of happiness” (Cohen, p.36).  Viewing the Montana problem through the lens of Mill’s utilitarianism, one can assert that happiness is not being promoted for most people in the current situation.  This implies that an unethical situation is currently in effect as the rights of thousands are subordinated to a small percentage of the population.

Landowners also have rights, of course.  Landowners do not deserve to have trash strewn across their property, buildings vandalized, ranch equipment stolen, game poached, or other illegal activities take place on their property.  These are legitimate concerns and no one is suggesting otherwise.  The Montana Wildlife Federation and Public Land/Water Access Association report states that “Hunters, anglers, and other recreational users have a legal obligation and ethical responsibility to absolutely respect private property” (Gevock, p.2).  Most outdoor enthusiasts would agree.  The reprehensible actions of a few, however, do not afford property owners an ethical position from which to take matters into their own hands by barricading public roadways.  Mill points out that very few people find themselves in a position “to be a public benefactor” and in these situations, such persons “[are]…called on to consider public utility,” which, to Mill, would mean” [T]he multiplication of happiness …on an extended scale” (Cohen p.41).  When considered from Mill’s utilitarian perspective, therefore, the right thing for landowners to do would be reopen access roads, thereby increasing happiness for thousands of citizens.

Unlike Mill, who focused on the consequences of human behavior, philosopher Immanuel Kant was interested in applying rules (which he called imperatives) to human problems.  These imperatives were “objectively necessary in [themselves] apart from [their] relation to a further end…” and thus involve not only a moral outcome but a moral intention.  Kant states “There is …only a single categorical imperative… ‘Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’’’ (Cohen p.43, 44).  Thus Kant argues that a proposed course of action is only morally correct if that action would be appropriate for everyone who faces a similar situation.

Viewing the Montana access problem from Kant’s point of view, one could ask, would it be universally appropriate for all private landowners to block off existing access routes to public land?  Consider what the implications might be if the answer is yes.  Suddenly the country becomes very fragmented.  Imagine trying to get to work, the beach, or take the family on vacation without being able to utilize public routes that cross private land.  By universalizing the actions of some Montana landowners, public transportation routes would be very limited, and in many cases, virtually cease to exist!  From a Kantian perspective, there is an ethically perilous situation occurring in Montana.

While it is not clear what the final outcome will be for Montana’s citizens, the public access issue they are confronting with concerns all Americans.  No matter which ethical viewpoint one wishes to apply to the current situation, government authorities have a legal and moral obligation to represent the interests of all citizens.  When necessary, these authorities must intervene on behalf of the public interest.  If the Montana landowners involved in creating the current crisis decide to conduct themselves in an ethical manner, access routes to wilderness areas will be reopened soon, and governmental intervention will not be necessary.