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“Testing the waters”

A new citizens’ initiative seeks to protect Montana’s wild and scenic streams for the first time in nearly four decades

May 28, 2015

By Laura Lundquist

Taking advantage of a recent cool morning, Bob Jones cast his line into the coffee-colored waters of Rock Creek. On the road, his rental car waited to take him back to Missoula where the rest of his family was helping his daughter, a new University of Montana graduate, move out of her apartment.

Jones would be flying back to his Illinois home the next morning, so he took advantage of the short drive to Rock Creek and spent a few stolen hours trying to tempt trout to rise through the spring runoff.

“We rented a cabin here for last Thanksgiving, and I had to come back,” Jones says. “There’s nothing like this in Illinois.”

That’s what lures many anglers to Montana: accessible, natural rivers with healthy trout populations. Some locals take these assets as a given, but they could be lost as a rebounding economy allows more people to relocate to Montana, drawn by its natural beauty and recreational opportunities.

A growing population needs more water, land, energy and resources. If further development diminishes water quality and quantity, the blue-ribbon fishery that supports a small tourist economy in the Rock Creek Valley faces collapse.

Most Rock Creek landowners don’t want that. Many moved to the valley to get away from people, and they banded together in 2006 to fight a proposed subdivision near the mouth of Rock Creek. About 120 landowners still belong to the Rock Creek Preservation Association although no new development has threatened the status quo.

Then, a few years ago, the RCPA got a visit from a group with an idea for protecting parts of Rock Creek forever. Montanans for Healthy Riversa coalition of conservationists, outfitters and business owners led by American Rivers, a national organization—introduced the RCPA to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and asked for help in designating parts of Rock Creek.

Having put a conservation easement on his own land, RCPA treasurer Steve Speckart didn’t take much convincing. Other landowners were more skeptical, but with the memory of the subdivision battle still fresh, Speckart thinks they might come around.

“People can see the risks and they love the river,” he says. “My overall sense is that (the wild and scenic listing) is something that would be endorsed.”

Since then, Montanans for Healthy Rivers has been developing a citizens’ initiative to give wild and scenic designations to certain sections of about 50 Montana streams. The law would forever protect those rapids, riffles and waterfalls from any change that would affect their free-flowing nature.

The coalition has watched it happen in other states that possibly had less to lose. Five years ago, American Rivers volunteers celebrated the passage of the 2009 Public Lands Management Act after working to designate 160 river miles in Utah, more than 400 river miles in Wyoming and more than 300 miles in Idaho.

Montana Healthy Rivers wants to do the same in Montana, since legendary trout streams such as the Thompson, Madison, Gallatin and Smith rivers are at risk. Only 370 miles are protected on four Montana rivers, so the group believes there’s more to be done and now is the time to do it.

That’s why, starting in June, Montana Healthy Rivers representatives will host meetings around the state to give the public a chance to weigh in on which rivers should be covered in the initiative.

Scott Bosse wants to bring the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act “back home” because, like a number of significant conservation laws, it was born in Montana.

After World War II, U.S. soldiers returned home to a renewed economy and many went to school on the GI Bill, creating an educated workforce. As the 1950s progressed, more people moved west along with new industry.

To power the burgeoning region, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built large dams that flooded pristine river valleys. In Montana, the massive Fort Peck Dam had already been built across the Missouri River in the 1930s. Then, it took five years to plug the South Fork of the Flathead River with the Hungry Horse Dam in 1953.

Four years later, it appeared that the Middle Fork of the Flathead would meet a similar fate. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had proposed the Spruce Park Project, a smaller dam forcing the Middle Fork to back up for 11 miles. Water from the Middle Fork Reservoir would be piped below the mountain range to the west so it could run a new power plant on the banks of Hungry Horse Reservoir.

But wildlife biologist John Craighead of the University of Montana was having none of it. Craighead had rafted the Middle Forkas Navy survival instructors in Idaho, he and his twin brother, Frank, spearheaded the use of rubber rafts for whitewater—and knew its importance to native fish. A dam would destroy the migration route of native bull trout from Flathead Lake to the upper spawning reaches.

Meanwhile, Frank was working for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., and knew that a congressional bill proposing wilderness preservation had been introduced the year before. The Craigheads thought the idea should be adapted to preserve wild rivers.

“Rivers and their watersheds are inseparable, and to maintain wild areas, we must preserve the rivers that drain them,” John wrote in a 1957 Naturalist Magazine article.

Over the next two years, Congress began studying national outdoor recreation needs and water resources. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall tasked Frank with fine-tuning a system that a Forest Service study team could use to classify wild and scenic rivers.

A final committee report in 1959 proposed that certain streams be preserved in their free-flowing condition “because their natural scenic, scientific, aesthetic, and recreational values outweigh their value for water development and control purposes now and in the future.” It was the government’s first major proposal for a national rivers system, says Frank’s son Lance Craighead, who now heads the Craighead Institute, a Bozeman-based research organization that his father founded 50 years ago.

In 1964, another Montanan stepped in to give the idea a boost. Stewart Brandborg of Hamilton was a key player in getting the 1964 Wilderness Act passed, and he had President Lyndon Johnson’s ear at a critical time.

“Johnson wanted something new that would be popular. Brandborg told him about the wild and scenic river idea and (Johnson) says, ‘That sounds great. Get it ready,'” Lance says.

Sen. Frank Church finally introduced the first Wild Rivers Act in 1964 but it would take 16 tries before it became law in 1968.

With that, the threat to the Middle Fork was eliminated. Forest Service teams surveyed the three forks of the Flathead River and determined the upper reaches all qualified as wild. In 1976, freshman U.S. Sen. Max Baucus sponsored the three forks of the Flathead and a 149-mile stretch of the Missouri for wild and scenic designation.

Construction of massive hydropower dams may be a thing of the past.

It’s challenging enough to get a large dam proposal through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process, but there’s also strong social opposition as Americans have become more aware over the past half-century of the ecological and cultural tradeoffs that come with dams.

“We don’t have any plans or proposals to build new dams,” says NorthWestern Energy spokesman Butch Larcombe. “Permitting a new dam these days is virtually impossible—for anything of any size, anyway.”

Conservation groups have continually called for the elimination of various dams nationwide, and some have come down. The most recent examples are the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River that ends in Olympic National Park in Washington.

“We did an analysis and found it costs about $2,000 a river mile to promote a wild and scenic designation,” says American Rivers’ Scott Bosse. “In comparison, it’s costing about $8 million a mile to clean up the Clark Fork. From an investment perspective, it’s far cheaper to protect the river while it’s still intact.”

The Clark Fork is an extreme example, because it was mainly historic mine wastes from Butte and Anaconda that required the cleanup, not just the Milltown Dam, which caused the waste to settle in the river.

Yet, the Milltown Dam removal is a prime example of the benefits created by returning a stream to its free-flowing state. Since the dam was removed in 2008, more people fish, float and play in the river, which makes it that much more of a selling point for Missoula tourism.

Advantageous as they are, those benefits must compete with the growing threats of climate change. The need for energy sources without carbon emissions is increasing, and hydropower dams are the most stable clean energy sources in the U.S. So the environmental community is sandwiched between the need for clean energy and the desire for unchained rivers.

Unlike 50 years ago, river enthusiasts aren’t battling large companies or the Bureau of Reclamation wanting big dams. Today’s proposals are usually submitted by smaller companies to build small dams in high reaches that would generate around 10 megawatts, or enough energy to power 10,000 homes. That’s the cap on the amount of energy the state requires NorthWestern Energy to buy from any one independent producer.

A 2014 U.S. Department of Energy report says innovations in GIS technology made it easier to find feasible locations for dams in remote regions. The authors claimed that damming all the identified remote streams would almost double hydropower production in the U.S. The Pacific Northwest, including western Montana, accounts for a good portion.

Such a proposal caused a stir on the Beartooth Front in 2009 and launched Montana’s first citizen effort to protect a river since 1976. In the spring, East Rosebud Creek crashes out of the Beartooth Wilderness and passes through a scenic canyon that’s home to several ranches and private residences before joining the Stillwater River. But in the late summer, flows can dwindle to the point where a dam might turn the stream to mere puddles.

It didn’t take long for those landowners to form the Friends of East Rosebud after learning that Bozeman-based Hydrodynamics had applied to build a diversion dam on the creek just below Rosebud Lake in the Custer National Forest.

It was the second time a dam had been proposed for the area in spite of the fact that the Forest Service had declared the stream eligible for wild and scenic designation in 1989.

Even though the stream was eligible, the community didn’t initially seek wild and scenic designation. Like many in Montana, they weren’t familiar with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and were leery about turning to a federal program.

American Rivers Associate Director Michael Fiebig introduced landowners to the act and dispelled fears that it would interfere with their livelihoods. The Friends of East Rosebud eventually started pursuing a designation in 2012.

Hydrodynamics finally pulled its application in 2013, citing high costs as a deterrent. But the community opposition may have influenced those costs, Fiebig says.

“The Forest Service decided, in their ability to put conditions on the FERC permit, that they would require heavy mitigation for wild and scenic values that would cost a lot of money,” Fiebig says. “And they would recommend that FERC deny the permit, which does hold a lot of weight.”

With groundwork already laid, the community continues to seek a wild and scenic designation independent of the upcoming citizens’ initiative spearheaded by Montanans for Healthy Rivers. Group leaders such as Frank Annighofer have lobbied Montana’s congressional delegation, and Fiebig says they might get a designation before the year is out.

“They’ve done an amazing job,” he says. “We were told the reason it didn’t make it into the Cromnibus bill (in November) is that each state got only so many chips to put on the table. The things that made it in had been waiting in line longer.

“Each person has a different reason for wanting a designation—legacy, aesthetics, tourism, ensuring water delivery for agriculture—but when there’s a credible threat, like on East Rosebud, people line up.”

People also lined up in Madison County after Hydrodynamics submitted a second 2009 application for a dam across the Madison River below Quake Lake in the Gallatin National Forest.

The residents prevailed in 2013, arguing that the Madison River was eligible for wild and scenic protection and that the area’s seismic instability could put a dam at risk. That section of the Madison River is now part of the citizens’ initiative that will be unveiled at public meetings in June.

Local waterways currently in the initiative include the aforementioned stretch of Rock Creek; the North Fork of the Blackfoot River and Monture Creek in the Blackfoot drainage; Cache Creek, Straight Creek and the west and north forks of Fish Creek in the Great Burn; and 8 miles of the Upper Swan River. Federal land agencies have already listed many of the streams as eligible, but nothing has happened because citizens have to push their congressmen for the designation, Bosse says.

Sometimes, the public must also ensure that federal agencies properly identify which rivers could be protected. For example, a 2004 study flagged 10 streams in the Flathead National Forest as eligible. A 2006 forest plan that would have hindered the consideration of any others was shelved when a lawsuit challenged a Bush administration rule that weakened the role of public input in management plans.

After the rule was rewritten in 2012, the FNF prepared to do another stream survey. Montanans for Healthy Rivers submitted an independent survey that found 46 streams were eligible, including the original 10. The Forest Service then evaluated the 36 rivers in question. As a result, the FNF listed 12 more eligible streams, or 22 total, in its newly proposed plan.

After that progress in the Flathead, Montanans for Healthy Rivers hopes to continue building public support to designate those and other streams as wild and scenic. But the group knows it can’t forget the main lesson learned during the FNF lawsuit: elicit public input.

Throughout 2013, Montanans for Healthy Rivers held general public meetings and roundtables, such as the one for the Rock Creek Preservation Association, to teach people what the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act does. Bosse says most of the opposition he’s encountered has been ideological or the result of misunderstandings. Some question the underlying motives when streams don’t appear threatened. But the group says it’s better to be proactive than wait until a river is under the gun.

“It makes the most sense. You don’t buy car insurance after you get in an accident,” Fiebig says. “But it’s harder to get people to do. When there’s only a potential threat, it’s like, ‘If there never is a threat, I don’t want a piece of federal legislation protecting this river.'”

Despite the wariness of some, the number of rivers in the proposal kept increasing over the past two years after people became more familiar with the idea, Bosse says.

“Originally, we weren’t quite looking this big. But people have come to us and said they wanted their river protected. When you’re seeking input, you get less opposition because you’re asking people for their opinion,” Bosse says. “Once you put forth a proposal, it becomes more of a target.”

In advance of the June meetings, Montanans for Healthy Rivers has mapped out the proposed stretches, and some wonder if the mass of squiggly lines would appear as an overreach to conservative Montanans. Russell Parks, vice president of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana and owner of the Missoulian Angler Fly Shop, says outfitters and guides support the effort because designation has no effect on fishing opportunities. If anything, it means fly shops like his can count on a steady flow of customers well into the future. But that economic boost doesn’t matter to some people.

“I hope the education worksit’s a massive scope with little stretches on a lot of rivers. I hope that it’s not too big,” Parks says.

John Sullivan, co-chair of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says he had a few things to learn when he helped Montanans for Healthy Rivers organize the roundtable discussion in Whitefish.

“Like everyone else, I thought it was like protecting a wilderness area,” Sullivan says. “People didn’t flinch at the number of river miles—it was more about how it might affect them. But it doesn’t keep landowners from using the water.”

Private property rights can be a contentious issue in the West. It’s bad enough when a neighbor or hunter trespasses, but the thought of having to adhere to a federal regulation makes some landowners see red.

“I heard from one woman who says it was outrageous to endorse wild and scenic rivers: ‘We don’t want the government coming in and taking away our river.’ But that was just one out of 90,” says Speckart of the Rock Creek Preservation Association.

Other than banning structures that inhibit streamflow, designation doesn’t introduce many restrictions. However, it does limit new development within a quarter-mile of either bank. To avoid infringing on private property and thus provide a greater chance of success, the proposed initiative lists mainly short segments flowing only through public land.

Parks says he would have liked protection for longer segments of river but he understands. “I get it. But let’s talk about the entire river. Let’s talk about the challenges of gathering landowner support and what that means for landowners to jump onboard,” Parks says. “I think they’re picking off the easiest chunks. But maybe that’s something for the future.”

In the meantime, Montanans for Healthy Rivers will take input throughout 2015. Any legislation would have to wait until next year, anyway.

“This is a living proposal,” Bosse says, “and we welcome public opinion.”

Montanans for Healthy Rivers will host its first public meetings June 2 at Seeley Lake Community Hall and June 3 at the Missoula Holiday Inn Downtown. Both meetings begin at 7 p.m.

This story was updated May 29 to correct the river miles affected by the 2009 Public Lands Management Act and the cost of restoring the Clark Fork.

Click here for the original article on the Missoula Independent’s webpage.

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