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River advocates seek federal Wild and Scenic designations for Montana waters

June 3, 2015

Rob Chaney, Missoulian

It’s been almost 40 years since a Montana waterway won federal Wild and Scenic River designation.

An advocacy group called Montanans for Healthy Rivers wants to change that. But it doesn’t know if the process will be like a flash flood or a canyon-carving.

“Protecting the rivers special to Montana is like an insurance policy,” said American Rivers associate director Mike Fiebig, one of the state group’s organizers. “You buy them when you, or what you want to protect, are healthy. If we wait until we’re fighting large industrial proposals, there’s already a lot of money and resources and time and energy lined up to make that thing happen, and the fight is that much harder. I know it’s harder to get people to think multiple years ahead, but in the long run it’s better.”

Over the past four years, Montanans for Healthy Rivers has been gathering ideas from about 200 groups, businesses and landowners to build a list of waterways suitable for federal protection.

Waterways around Missoula up for consideration include Rock Creek, the North Fork of the Blackfoot River, Monture Creek, parts of the Upper Swan River and several tributaries of Fish Creek. To the north, Whale, Yakinikak and Trail creeks just west of Glacier National Park are on the list. Most of the major flows in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, including the Dearborn and Spotted Bear rivers, have been proposed.

East Rosebud Creek, parts of the Madison and Gallatin rivers, and the world-famous Smith River are also on the list. Fiebig said more suggestions could come as the organization continues its outreach across the state.

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Community gatherings in Seeley Lake and Missoula this week added some more grist for the mill. But they also revealed the challenges of winning public acceptance for a federal designation.

For example, members of the Blackfoot Challenge board have met with American Rivers personnel about the North Fork Blackfoot and Monture Creek recommendations. But they’re not ready to endorse the ideas yet.

“We don’t have a position on it,” Blackfoot Challenge director Gary Burnett said. “There’s an opportunity there to have that designation benefit the landscape, but more information and discussion need to be brought to the situation.”

Burnett said the main stem of the Blackfoot River likely wouldn’t be a good candidate for Wild and Scenic designation because of the complicated mix of private and public ownership along its shores. While much of the North Fork and Monture Creek flow through public land in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, they also water private property as they approach the main stem.

Russell Parks of the Missoulian Angler said Montana’s tourism reputation benefits greatly from its pristine rivers. Economic studies cited by American Rivers claim the outdoor recreation industry supports 64,000 jobs and generates about $5.8 billion annually.

“People come from across the country and around the world to fish Montana’s rivers, and they pump a lot of money into local economies when they’re here,” Russell said. “Protecting our last best rivers by getting them designated as Wild and Scenic not only is a wise investment in our future, but it’s also a badge of honor for our rivers.”

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The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act had its genesis in Montana when wildlife biologist John Craighead sought ways to defeat a proposed dam on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in the 1950s. The river flowed between protected lands of the Bob Marshall Primitive Area (before the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed) and Glacier National Park. But the waterway had no special status.

“A (federal) wilderness designation does not protect the river itself,” American Rivers conservation associate Kascie Herron said in Stevensville. “For example, there are mining claims in the Cabinet Wilderness that could affect Rock Creek there. To extract those minerals, water must be pumped. And that’s important bull trout spawning habitat.”

It took several years, but legislation was finally passed in 1968. Then-freshman U.S. Sen. Max Baucus led the push to get the Flathead forks and Missouri portion designated in 1976. No Montana river since has made the cut.

A Wild and Scenic River designation provides some protection against future industrial development while allowing existing uses. More than 200 rivers and 12,000 river miles have already received the designation, including the three forks of the Flathead River and a 150-mile reach of the Missouri River between Fort Benton and Fort Peck Reservoir.

“We’re trying to build off momentum from neighboring states,” said Fiebig. “Especially in 2009, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah all passed large Wild and Scenic bills. And they’re all in some ways far more conservative than Montana.”

Wyoming’s congressional delegation protected the headwaters of the Snake River under the act, encompassing hundreds of miles of streamway around Jackson Hole. Idaho’s delegation OK’d protecting the Owyhee River system, while Utah gave Wild and Scenic designation to the Virgin River system that flows into Zion National Park.

Timing a congressional push can be difficult. Next year is a presidential election year, when some Congress members want to show action while others hold back. The lame-duck months after the election, at the end of a presidential administration, often see scrambles for legacy legislation – especially landmarks, monuments and, possibly, Wild and Scenic rivers.

“These things can happen surprisingly fast or take a surprisingly long time,” Fiebig said. “It could be a next-year thing, or five or 10 years down the road.”

The original article can be found here.

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