Explore Big Sky: Montana Headwaters Legacy Act reintroduced

by Jen Clancey

Act would protect 384 miles of Montana rivers

Some say the third time’s the charm; in this case, it’s for passing an important piece of river legislation in the U.S. government. On Nov. 16, Sen. Jon Tester announced the reintroduction of the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, bringing the river protection bill a third run since its initial introduction in 2020. 

The river conservation law would protect 384 miles of Montana rivers, including the Gallatin, Madison and Smith rivers, as well as waterways in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

The foundation for the MHLA comes from a national law that has protected 13,396 miles of U.S. rivers since 1968. States can propose their river be designated under the U.S. Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, meaning that the waterway, or portions of it, would be protected nationally. 

The MHLA would be the most significant use of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in nearly half a century. For a state where less than 0.5% of rivers are designated, the impact would bring Montana closer to preserving crucial ecosystems.

Supporters of the bill feel that it’s gaining momentum. 

Level of support ‘almost unheard of’ 

“Support for the bill has continued to grow over the years. We’re now at a point where 85% of Montana supports it,” Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies regional director at American Rivers said. American Rivers is an organization that works to protect and restore rivers and waterways nationwide. 

“90% of Gallatin county residents support it, which is almost unheard of,” Bosse said. 

The results of the Breakthrough Campaigns poll also state that 93% of Democrats, 84% of Independents and 82% of Republicans support the MHLA, making it a very bipartisan issue.

“It has strong support across the political spectrum,” Bosse said. “And the other change is… [that] the little opposition to the bill that did exist, has decreased quite a bit over the last few years.”

Bosse said that a few groups did express concern over the bill but that  American Rivers has worked with them to properly address these concerns.

In strong support of the bill is Gallatin County; two years ago, the Gallatin County Commission unanimously endorsed the MHLA in a public meeting about the bill. 

“The Gallatin River just symbolizes some of the challenges we’ve had with intense growth, in terms of some of the problems it’s having,” Zach Brown, Gallatin County Commissioner said. “But it’s really the culture, cultural, economic, and environmental centerpiece of Gallatin County.”

“So providing permanent protection, acknowledging it as a real gem of this country, as well as of our county and state is just a no-brainer,” Brown continued. 

Bringing wild and scenic rivers ‘home’

Montana’s history with the Wild and Scenic River Act goes back more than 50 years. 

John and Frank Craighead, both wildlife biologists who worked with National Geographic, realized the idea when they opposed the Spruce Park Dam and Glacier View Dam, two projects that would have eroded the ecological health and environment in the middle of the Flathead River.  

“We’re trying to bring the Wild and Scenic Rivers back home, where it was born,” Bosse said. 

One of the challenges is to get the rest of the Montana delegation on board with the bill. For those passionate about the bill’s success, Bosse recommends calling Montana representatives and expressing support for the legislation.

“They need to hear from people,” he said. “Elected officials don’t see the light until they feel the heat.”