June 3, 2015
Tom Kuglin, Helena Independent Record
It was nearly 40 years ago and a few years after passage of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that Montana last saw a river designated for protection. A coalition of conservationist groups and outfitters is looking to change that.
Called Montanans for Healthy Rivers, the coalition released its draft citizens’ proposal this week calling for protection of more than 700 miles of 54 rivers and streams across western Montana. The list includes famous stretches of the Smith, Dearborn, Madison and Gallatin and lesser-known waterways such as Monture Creek, Basin Creek and White River. An interactive map of the proposal is available at http://healthyriversmt.org/.
Montana currently has two wild and scenic rivers, so designated in 1976: the Upper Missouri and three forks of the Flathead, equating to 368 river miles. That is far below the top states in the lower 48 of California with nearly 2,000 miles, Oregon with more than 1,800 and Idaho with just under 900 miles.
“That’s pretty paltry for a state our size and with the kind of pristine country and rivers we have,” said Steve Platt, steering committee member representing Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Wilderness is great, but it’s really these rivers that are the lifeblood of our backcountry areas and communities.”
As Montana’s climate is expected to become drier, preserving waters, many of which flow through public lands, is critical from an ecological standpoint for fish and wildlife, he said. Even waters in wilderness areas but not designated as wild and scenic are not totally protected from dams, he added.
Passed in 1968, the act includes varying levels of designation based on development. Protections include prohibiting federally licensed dams, ensuring water quality, restricting activities that degrade water or special values, developing a management plan and creating a junior water right to maintain those values.
Designations typically allow traditional uses such as livestock grazing and motorized use and do not impact private property or senior water rights.
The proposal comes after four years identifying rivers and streams that the coalition believes deserve protection. Designations of any Montana rivers must come through an act of Congress.
“People in Montana … are intimately tied and care about rivers in their home watersheds and want to see them maintained in perpetuity,” said Charles Drimal, a member of the steering committee representing the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Drimal emphasized that the proposal is far from finished, and Montanans for Healthy Rivers expects continued input with possible additions or subtractions as the coalition pushes toward any possible legislation. Public forums have already been held in Seeley Lake and Missoula with meetings planned through June in Bozeman, Kalispell and Billings.
Platt, Drimal and Mike Fiebig, Northern Rockies associate director for American Rivers in Bozeman, were not surprised as the list of rivers continued to grow through planning.
“It is ambitious, but it’s a culmination of four years of outreach and it’s going out to Montana as an ongoing process identifying some of our best rivers that have been left unprotected,” Fiebig said. “Some of those streams have immediate threats and some are more along the lines of an insurance policy. If we protect them now, we save ourselves costly and difficult battles in the future.”
Fiebig noted that wild and scenic efforts by Montanans in the ’70s and ’80s fizzled, but more recent successes in Idaho and Utah “woke a lot of people up to the wild and scenic tool,” for protecting headwaters of storied rivers like the Snake.
“I think it takes a consolidated effort from stakeholders, and for whatever reason, the effort hasn’t been united,” Drimal answered when asked why he believed 40 years has passed without a Montana designation. “Now, Montanans for Healthy Rivers represents a united front.”
The only opposition Drimal has encountered is ideological, he said, and the coalition recognizes the federal legislative process will take support from Montana’s delegation. Montanans for Healthy Rivers will continue outreach throughout the next year with the goal of bringing a refined proposal before it pushes for legislation, he added.
Drimal and Fiebig both believed last year’s passage of the first wilderness in Montana in 30 years and protections for the North Fork of the Flathead River bode well for their efforts.
“I do think we have great momentum, and last year’s passage demonstrated bipartisan support for river designation,” Drimal said. “River conservation is a nonpartisan issue, and here is a great opportunity to move.”
“I do think it cleared the deck a bit for new conservation pieces,” Fiebig said. “If we can bring a proposal forward with good support, we’re pretty hopeful one or whole delegation would pick this up.”