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MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Support Wild and Scenic Protections for Montana’s Rivers

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Support Wild and Scenic Protections for Montana’s Rivers

December 6, 2016

What would Montana be without its wild and scenic rivers? Montana must never find out.

And the best way to ensure that certain free-flowing rivers in Montana stay exactly the same way they are now is to obtain official designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Fortunately, a statewide movement is currently underway to do just that.

A group called Montanans for Healthy Rivers has been working for the past few years to identify stretches of river that qualify for Wild and Scenic designation, and has drafted requests for dozens of designations that cover a total of nearly 700 miles of river in Montana, a tiny fraction of the estimated 170,000 miles of river in the state. Wild and Scenic River protections would prevent these special waterways from ever being dammed, developed or drained.

Rivers that receive Wild and Scenic River designation cannot be considered for new federally licensed dams or other water development projects; their water quality cannot be diminished and their special values cannot be harmed; and federally reserved water rights specify the minimum amount of water they need to maintain these values.

Wild and Scenic River designation carries almost no cost to the taxpayer, except for whatever minimal expenses might be incurred from developing a comprehensive river management plan, which covers a period of between 10-20 years. In western Montana alone, more than 1,200 river miles are already managed as Wild and Scenic, though they may lack any formal designation.

The legislation makes sense for a number of different places throughout Montana, which is no surprise given that the act has its source in Montana.

The Craighead brothers, John and Frank, famed for their pioneering studies on grizzly bears, saw the need to protect the wild rivers in grizzly territory and set to work on the language for what would become the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Though Congress approved the act in 1968, Montana did not get its first designation until 1976, when then-freshman congressman Max Baucus succeeded in protecting a combined 368 miles of the Flathead and Missoula rivers.

 Unfortunately, that was also the last time a river in Montana received Wild and Scenic designation. While other states have moved forward with federal legislation to protect their rivers, including Wyoming’s Snake River Headwaters Wild and Scenic bill passed in 2009, Montana still counts a mere four designations in total.

A portion of the East Rosebud is set to become the fifth. Thanks to the combined efforts of Montana’s congressional delegation – U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke – Congress is set to protect 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek that passes through the Custer-Gallatin National Forest west of Red Lodge.

The river has so far weathered threats of damming and remained free-flowing; however, these attempts have helped make permanent protections a bipartisan priority for Montana’s senators and congressman, who hope to attach the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Bill to legislation that will pass before the year ends. Despite widespread support for a designation, they are up against the clock.

Montana shouldn’t wait another 40 years for its next Wild and Scenic River designation. In the future, however, rather than tackle each river individually as new threats present themselves, it makes far more sense to identify the rivers that qualify for and would benefit from designation, and put together a package to cover all of them in one act.

Montanans for Healthy Rivers has gotten the ball rolling with draft requests for 54 river sections in Montana, including 23 miles of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River, 31 miles of Rock Creek and 10 miles of the West Fork of Fish Creek. Others include the Dearborn and Smith rivers, upper and lower Swan rivers and Yellowstone River. If Montanans agree that their list hits the mark and help push for Wild and Scenic River designation, fishing, floating and other public recreation uses would continue just as they do now.

The Healthy Rivers groups has held more than a dozen public meetings so far and are planning more as they continue to work with Montana’s congressional delegation on draft legislation. The quiet winter months ahead would make a good time to take the time to learn more about these efforts, and to contemplate what might one day happen to our favorite free-flowing waters if action is not taken to protect them.

The original Missoulian Editorial can be found HERE.

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