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Guest Column: Protecting Montana’s Last, Best, Free-flowing Rivers

Charles Drimal, Guest Columnist
Bozeman Daily Chronicle – December 8, 2014

Long before Norman Maclean’s book “A River Runs Through It” launched Montana’s river heritage into national stardom by way of Hollywood cinema, Montanans recognized that the treasure state’s last, best-kept secrets are found below the high-water-mark.

More than simple bodies of water draining our mountains and valleys, our rivers arguably fuel two of Montana’s most important economic drivers – agriculture and tourism. Sound stewardship of Montana’s rivers contributes to a track record of good jobs, healthy fish and wildlife habitat, and an exceptional quality of life for all of us.

Today, national and international spotlights shine on many of Montana’s iconic rivers and streams. As well, the draw of natural resource development and demand from the energy industry threaten the integrity and the health of our rivers.

Often it comes as a surprise to Montanans and visitors alike that the vast majority of Montana’s celebrated rivers lack protection from threats like new dams and diversions, oil and gas drilling and trans-basin water projects that threaten to pull Montana’s water out of state.

Fortunately, a burgeoning grassroots movement to protect Montana’s last, best free-flowing rivers is surfacing. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, along with a robust collection of Montana businesses, ranchers, watershed councils, sportsman groups and conservationists are collectively working to build community support for measures that protect rivers, such as the Gallatin, Upper Yellowstone, Boulder, Stillwater and Rock Creek.

At the core of this movement is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, an important, worthwhile legislative tool. The idea of leveraging the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is helping to grow significant momentum among Montanans of all backgrounds in support of a future that protects free-flowing rivers on public lands.

Montana Fly Fishing Guides owner, Eric Adams of Livingston explains, “The Yellowstone River is the lifeblood of our community. It’s a major influence on our local economy and uniquely identifies us to people worldwide. Our business and personal passions rely on the health of the Yellowstone watershed and we fully support future protective legislation.”

In Red Lodge, Sylvan Peak Mountain Sports proprietor, Marci Dye agrees, “Our business is directly related to people using public lands and protecting healthy rivers.”

And in Big Sky, Eric Becker of Geyser Whitewater Expeditions, adds, “The Gallatin River is a recreational gem for the state. I think it is worth our time to explore a Wild and Scenic River designation to maintain the free-flowing nature and current water quality of the river.”

These voices are among many in Montana. Bi-partisan public polling results commissioned by Montanans for Healthy Rivers earlier this year confirmed that rivers are viewed by Montanans as integral to our way of life. Eighty-five percent of Montanans believe healthy rivers are important to Montana’s economy; 70 percent of Montanans have recreated on a river within the past year.

We are clearly a people drawn to rivers. Still, in a state where less than one-quarter of 1 percent of Montana’s rivers are protected, we can do better. It is important for all Montanans to stand up for our rivers and the strength of our economy, and to be prepared to communicate to elected officials and policy-makers regarding the significance of these rivers that run through all our lives.

Based in Bozeman, Charles Wolf Drimal is a river conservation associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

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