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Montana’s Rivers Deserve More Protection

Brett French
Billings Gazette – November 30, 2014

Montana is a river state. Just think of the iconic waters that are nationally and internationally known: the Madison, Yellowstone, Missouri and Gallatin; the Bighole, Bighorn, Blackfoot and Flathead. “We think Montanans are pretty proud of our rivers,” said Mike Fiebig of American Rivers’ Bozeman field office.

Rightfully so, since they wind through some of our most beautiful and lush country: past the purple peaks of the Mission and Absaroka mountains, through the green valleys of the Swan and Paradise. Such waters are also a big part of Montanans’ lives — everyone from anglers to kayakers and rafters, to the cities that draw in their drinking water and the farmers who irrigate their fields — river water is a rich resource.

So why not do all we can to protect these precious streams? Why not designate the best of them — our most worthy waters — as Wild and Scenic Rivers?

What it does

A Wild and Scenic designation comes from Congress. This year, our two senators and our representative introduced separate bills in the House and Senate to protect portions of the East Rosebud River. That was in response to an immediate and continuing threat of hydropower development on the stream.

But why can’t we be more proactive and think bigger? Why can’t we work together to give such protections to more of our valuable waters. Here’s what such a designation would do, according to American Rivers’ website: protect existing uses like agriculture; prohibit federally licensed dams and any other federally assisted water resource project if it would negatively impact the river’s outstanding values; establish a quarter-mile protected corridor on both sides of the river; require the creation of a cooperative river management plan that addresses resource protection, development of lands and facilities, user capacities, etc.

Montana born

For those who think such protection of a natural resource is very un-Montanan, consider that the basis for the act was born in this state. Brothers John and Frank Craighead, who conducted the first studies of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, gave birth to the idea after floating the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers had proposed developing a dam at Spruce Park that would have drowned a now-famous section of the Middle Fork all the way to Shaefer Meadows. Although that section of river is in a protected wilderness area, folks may not know that wilderness designation does not prevent a river from being dammed.

That threat may have been what prompted John Craighead to write “Rivers and their watersheds are inseparable, and to maintain wild areas we must preserve the rivers that drain them.” Over several years, 16 different Wild and Scenic bills were introduced in Congress before finally being passed in 1968 and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In John’s words

Some view any government intervention to protect a natural resource as un-American. In a video made by Montanans for Healthy Rivers, the now-aged John Craighead said from his Missoula home that rivers are “about as American as America can be.”

Joel K. Bourne Jr., in a 2011 article for National Geographic magazine, said he asked Craighead “why wild rivers were such a crucial issue for him, thinking he would wax philosophical about the need for wild things in an increasingly man-made world. He shrugged. ‘I just loved rivers,’ he said.”

Craighead told Jeff Barnard in a 1993 Associated Press article that: “It has been less than 200 years since Lewis and Clark went through this country, and anybody can see the changes. If you go ahead another 100 or 200 years, the question is with the expanding populations and accompanying increased use of natural resources, will we be able to hold on to these things we set aside?”

Time to act

There are now 156 National Wild and Scenic Rivers. The North, South and Middle Forks of the Flathead River along with a 150-mile section of the upper Missouri River were designated in 1976. In the 38 years since then, nothing has been done by Montana’s leaders to protect our waters until this year. That’s a long silence that deserves to be broken.

“We view this as an insurance policy,” said Fiebig, of American Rivers. “Montanans are really lucky because we have cold, clean, relatively intact rivers in our state. But look a little farther south and you will see the western United States is struggling to provide enough water for agriculture, cities and industry. “We have a resource most of the rest of the United States wants, and now is the time to protect those rivers.”

Brett French is the Outdoors Editor of the Billings Gazette and can be reached at (406) 657-1387 or at

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