Butte sportsman Tony Schoonen helps keep Montana's streams and lands public
If Tony Schoonen had been alive around the time of the Voyage of Discovery, it’s a cinch that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would have been members of Skyline Sportsmen’s Association and the Montana Coalition for Stream Access before he let them paddle their way out of the state.
The legendary Butte sportsman is equally adept with a fly-rod, a shotgun, a rifle and a public-access lawsuit.
Schoonen has also proven to be skilled at building grassroots coalitions and lobbying the Legislature, protecting the wildlands he loves and issuing sharp reminders of the rights granted to the public by Montana’s Constitution.
Over the years, Schoonen has racked up success after success, advocating for the little guy in Montana’s vast outdoor sporting landscape. But it’s not over – far from it.
“It’s a constant fight,” Tony Schoonen says. “I still have plenty to do. I’ve never seen such a coordinated assault on our public lands as we’re seeing right now.”
Which, considering he just turned 88, is saying something.
Tony Schoonen was born in April of 1930 – as close to the heart of the Great Depression as you can get – and his family was a prime example. One of 10 children, he and five of his siblings spent their childhoods at the Montana State Orphanage in Twin Bridges because his family couldn’t afford to raise the kids.
“I learned how to work there,” he said.
That came in handy when he was 14, and was adopted by Sylvester Seidensticker. He went to live and work at the Seidensticker Ranch in the Big Hole Valley.
There, he fell in love with Montana wilderness in general, and the Big Hole country in particular.
When he had free time, he spent it roaming the ranch and nearby lands, sometimes with a shotgun and a dog.
And he learned to fish.
After a stint in the Army, he returned to find that some ranchers were using heavy equipment to move dirt around and divert water in the valley, and he was horrified at what he saw.
An activist was born.
“I never forgot that,” he says today. “I saw what heedlessly interfering with nature could do to a place I loved.”
He also witnessed road construction pushing dirt into streams, and decided that was one thing he could do something about. He lobbied the Legislature and in the early 1960s got a law passed requiring road construction to be done in a way that protected streams. Later, a more sweeping law would protect streambeds from all construction work.
After his military service, Schoonen went to Montana Western University, eventually gaining a graduate degree in education. While there he met his future wife, Margaret Ann Kuhl. They would have four children, Tony Jr., Maggie, Jack and Rebecca. He would work for three decades as a public-school teacher and principal in Cardwell, Whitehall and Butte.
His wife Margaret died in 2015.
Talk about two people you wouldn’t expect to share a boat. In the 1950s, Tony Schoonen guided Fred Chase Koch down the Big Hole River.
Koch, a chemical engineer, founded the oil-refining firm that would later become Koch Industries, currently the second-largest privately held company in the United States. He’s best-known today for fathering Charles and David Koch, perhaps the most influential donors to conservative causes in the country.
“I remember the first time I had him in the boat,” Schoonen says. “It was an overcast, blustery day. And we caught so damn many big fish.”
Later, he would find out that Fred Koch was an early member of the John Birch Society’s National Council, an advisory group to the Society’s founder, Robert Welch.
Koch would later buy the Matador Ranch, which included half a million acres of land in Texas and thousands of acres in Montana. The Montana holdings, now known as Beaverhead Ranch, have been greatly expanded to cover approximately 345,000 acres in southwest Montana, stretching from Dillon to the Idaho border, east to Yellowstone Park.
Schoonen was offered work on the ranch back in the ’50s, picking up smallsquare hay bales.
“They were offering a nickel a bale to stack them,” he said. “We thought we were going to get rich.”
He said he thought they weighed only 50 to 60 pounds, but quickly found out differently.
“I stuck a hayhook in one and it damn near jerked me off the flatbed,” he said. “They weighed 80 pounds if they weighed an ounce.”
Later, he would also guide for both Charles and David Koch.
“I should have drowned them,” he says with a wink and a grin.
In the 1960s, Schoonen and a couple of friends began the Skyline Sportsmen’s Association, a Butte-based sportsmens’ group that would grow and prosper into an organization with hundreds of members and fearsome political clout.
“Every issue that’s come up around conservation,” Schoonen says, “has been pushed by guys from Butte. Anything that’s gotten done, it’s been Butte guys doing it.”
And a whole lot has gotten done.
In the 1970s, Butte fishermen Jerry Manley and Tom Bugni joined forces with Schoonen and the remarkable Bozeman attorney Jim Goetz, then just starting what would be one of the most distinguished careers in the public interest of any advocate in the West.
That group formed the nucleus of what would become known as the Montana Stream Access Coalition.
At about the same time they were organizing, a landowner named Dennis Curran, a rancher and oil executive, was growing more and more aggressive in defending his seven miles of Dearborn River frontage. One day, according to witnesses, he ran over a would-be recreational user’s raft with his ranch truck.
The Stream Access Coalition brought suit against Curran, and the case found its way to the Montana Supreme Court in 1984.
The Supreme Court found in the Coalition’s favor. It found that the Dearborn was indeed “navigable,” and ruled that “any surface waters capable of recreational use may be so used by the public without regard to streambed ownership or navigability for non-recreational purposes.”
While the Curran case was pushing its way through the courts, the coalition filed another suit, this one against landowner Lowell Hildreth on the Beaverhead River. Hildreth had installed a fence blocking access to the Beaverhead from a bridge, and had voiced plans to put a chain across the river to block floaters.
The Supreme Court would rule on Hildreth not long after the Curran case, and again the Stream Access Coalition prevailed. The Court strengthened its earlier ruling by specifying that any navigable stream can be used up to the high water mark without regard to ownership of the surrounding lands.
The following year it became clear that the Legislature would make new law on the issue, and Schoonen and Jerry Manley were among the stakeholders asked to contribute to that process.
“Jerry used pretty salty language,” Schoonen remembers with a grin. “I was talking to a legislator and we could hear Jerry swearing at somebody. The legislator asked me, ‘Can’t you find a cage for that guy?’”
The eventual stream-access bill was fiercely opposed by some conservatives in the Legislature, but it had wide popular support. Schoonen remembers a Senate hearing on St. Patrick’s Day 1985. “We got guys to come to the hearing carrying fishing rods, oars, paddles,” he said. “Then we unrolled big butcher-paper rolls with supporters’ signatures.”
The bill passed, and Gov. Ted Schwinden signed it.
Then it was back to the Supreme Court after longtime Montana state senator and Martinsdale rancher Jack Galt challenged the law in court, characterizing it as a taking of private property without just compensation.
The state’s highest court was obdurate, issuing a ruling that mirrored the Curran and Hildreth cases, affirming the right of recreational use up to the high-water mark, and when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case,
Montana’s stream access law was settled, and the Coalition celebrated.
But as Schoonen points out, it’s never over. When Atlanta media billionaire James Cox Kennedy bought a ranch on the Ruby River and began blocking bridge access points, the Coalition’s successor, the Public Land and Water Access Association, sued in 2004 to have the barriers removed.
Kennedy argued that he owned the land under the river and the air above it.
It took a decade, but once again the stream access law survived.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the public had a “prescriptive easement” to access the river near the bridges because previous landowners had allowed it.
Next up: School trust lands. With the late Jack Atcheson Sr. of Butte and retired BLM manager Jack Jones of Butte, Schoonen established the Montana Coalition for Appropriate Management of State Lands, and with Jim Goetz leading the way, sued the state of Montana for access to public trust lands, which, they argued, were specifically covered by Article X, Section 11 of the Montana Constitution, which states in part, “All lands of the state that have been or may be granted by Congress … shall be public lands of the state. They shall be held in trust for the people.”
That, they argued, meant that leaseholders did not have the right to exclude the public from the public’s land.
More court fights, more legislative wrangling and more bureaucratic rulemaking ensued, but after more than a decade, this one, too, landed in the win column for Tony Schoonen and more importantly for the people of Montana.
Montana’s public lands, waters and wildlife have never had a better friend than Tony Schoonen.
So what’s next?
Schoonen is mightily concerned about legislation to remove Wilderness Study Area designations on more than half a million acres of Montana public lands. He’s very concerned with a nasty fight between landowners and sportsmen that’s been bubbling up in the Crazy Mountains, including the reassigning of a Forest Service Ranger who has helping hunters with public access – a move later rescinded by the Forest Service – and a recent dispute about a blocked century-old public trail.
“I may have to form another coalition – the Crazy Mountains Public Access Coalition,” he says. “The loss of our public lands and public access will not only affect this generation, but all future generations, and our kids deserve better.”
Another pet project is an effort to establish a headwaters “buffer zone” where beavers are protected – a scientifically supported move that would help to restore riparian areas in the key headwaters zones.
Oh – and the outdoors beckons. A decidedly wintry turkey hunt helped allay the “cabin fever” the other day. But for months now, he’s been cooped up in the house with Ginger the Labrador, an adopted cat, his fly-tying vise, a few books, and the telephone, which rings constantly with friends and well-wishers on the other end.
But if Montana’s stubborn April snows ever melt, Tony Schoonen would really like to go fishing.