Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Tester reintroduces Montana Headwaters Legacy Act

by Isabel Hicks

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester reintroduced the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act to Congress this week in an effort to safeguard the state’s iconic rivers.

If passed, the bill would designate 384 miles of 20 Montana waterways as wild and scenic. It amends the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 to include the rivers in Montana.

Many southwest Montana rivers would fall under the designation, including segments of the Gallatin, Madison and Yellowstone rivers, and Hyalite, Hellroaring and Slough creeks.

The federal protections would preserve the rivers as free-flowing scenic waterways that could not be damned or otherwise impeded.

Specifically, the designation prohibits the permitting of any new hydropower projects on or directly affecting the rivers, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, or any other projects that would degrade the natural qualities of the rivers.

“Protecting public lands in Montana is about preserving the livelihoods of our communities and making sure we pass on that heritage to future generations,” Tester said in a release. “I’m proud to continue this fight to ensure that clean, free-flowing rivers, untouched by special interests, can be enjoyed by generations of Montanans to come.”

In the release Tester added the bill is supported by conservationists, outfitters, recreationists, ranchers, and groups including American Rivers, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Gallatin Risk Task Force.

Tester has pushed several times to move the bill through Congress but it has stalled in committee. He first introduced the legislation in 2020.

In years past it has not been supported by the Republican members of Montana’s delegation. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said last year he was concerned about the vague language of the designation and how it could impact energy projects, but he remains open to hearing from constituents.

A Tester spokesperson said Friday the 2023 version of the bill is largely the same as past versions, but there are some technical changes to the Madison River section. The changes address concerns from NorthWestern Energy about how a designation could impact their ability to operate hydropower facilities on the river, and clarifies that the Madison and Hebgen Dams would still be able to operate.

NorthWestern Energy CEO Brian Bird said in an email they appreciated Tester addressing their concerns with the bill and “adjusting the proposed designation for the Madison River to recognize the critical nature of our hydro assets.”

A spokesperson for Daines wrote in an email to the Chronicle Friday that he was still skeptical about the 2023 bill.

“Senator Daines is concerned the bill’s broad approach will make fire season even worse by tying Montanans’ hands when it comes to forest management, as well as hindering grazing and delaying needed wetlands and river restoration projects,” the statement said. “He wants to ensure the proposal makes sense for Montana and has strong support of local communities before supporting the bill.”

In the release from Tester, conservation groups and local Montana politicians praised the reintroduction of the act.

Bozeman’s Mayor Cyndy Andrus said she was pleased to see the bill includes the portions of the Gallatin River, Taylor Fork and Hyalite Creek that are on public land because those are the primary source of Bozeman’s drinking water.

“Protecting these important headwaters streams will also protect every downstream water user, including farmers and ranchers, municipalities, industrial users and river-based recreationists that contribute to Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy,” Andrus said.

Zach Brown, chairman of the Gallatin County Commission, called the bill a “common sense policy” in the release.

“Permanent protections for Montana’s rivers are good for business in Gallatin County. The health of the Gallatin River is fundamental to our culture, economy and way of life,” Brown said. “The Gallatin County Commission is proud to support this important legislation on behalf of our 120,000+ constituents.”

Earlier this year, the Wildlands music festival in Big Sky raised over $500,000 to support advancing the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act through Congress. Music festival organizer and Outlaw Partners CEO Eric Ladd praised the reintroduction in the release and said “clean and healthy waterways are as logical as gravity.”