Waters wash away divides as Montanans unite to protect rivers

by Rob Chaney

DARK BUTTE BOAT CAMP — East Rosebud Creek lies about 200 miles and 40 years away from this landmark on the Missouri River.

But in a process that seems almost as slow as the Mighty Mo’s lazy current, the little waterway could join the fraternity of Wild and Scenic Rivers by New Year’s Eve. If that happens, it will become just the fifth Montana river to win protection from legislation that had its origins right here.

“There’s really something about water that dissolves partisanship,” said Charles Wolf Drimal, waters conservation associate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition as he canoed through the Missouri’s Wild and Scenic corridor last month. “It has to do with supporting the quality of life you want for your grandkids.”

Just as all of Montana’s congressional delegation came together in 1976 to win designation for the Missouri and upper Flathead rivers, current Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines are joined by Rep. Ryan Zinke in supporting the East Rosebud’s candidacy. The one Democrat and two Republicans all re-upped their pledges recently to attach the river bill to year-end legislation and get it passed.

“We’re trying to put it in a conference report on one of the bills that will move,” Zinke said. “That puts it in a category where the vistas, the landscape, the experience of the river is preserved in perpetuity. This is not a contentious issue. It’s a myth that it takes our private land away — the (Wild and Scenic Rivers) Act never did that. That’s why both sides of the aisle strongly support it, and the local community supports it.”

To qualify, a potential Wild and Scenic River must have “outstanding remarkable values.” That slightly redundant term needs little introduction on the Upper Missouri. Lewis and Clark set the stage when they gushed about the White Cliffs that line nearly 30 miles of shoreline between Judith Landing and Coal Banks. Today, about 3,000 floaters a year spend an average of four days exploring their slot canyons, Native American petroglyphs, fantastic erosions and historic homesteads.

East Rosebud Creek drains the northern face of the Beartooth Mountains west of Red Lodge.

Although the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968 had deep Montana origins, the state didn’t get to use the legislation until 1976. That’s when 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River, and all three forks of the Flathead River along Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, were included. Despite a long list of additional candidates, no more Montana rivers have been added to the list.

A federal Wild and Scenic River designation would apply to 20 miles of the East Rosebud where it flows through the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. The reach has already resisted past proposals to build two small hydroelectric dams on its run before it spills into the Stillwater River.

The river through the Upper Missouri Breaks east of Fort Benton laces together three similar but separate wildland protections. A Wild and Scenic River Act designation covers 149 miles from Fort Benton to James Kipp Recreation Area at Fred Robinson Bridge. That protects the line of the river, from bank to bank between Fort Benton and Coal Banks and “rim-to-rim” from there to Kipp.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument overlays 375,000 acres, holding close to the waterway until Judith Landing before expanding out across public land between the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

The CMR then bounds the Missouri River for 915,814 acres between the Kipp Recreation Area and Fort Peck Dam, 125 air miles away. All together that’s barely 1 percent of Montana’s 147,000-square-mile landscape. But it is nearly as big as the entire state of Delaware.

A group called Montanans for Healthy Rivers has drafted requests for 54 more designations totaling 694 river miles. They include the North Fork of the Blackfoot River and several of its tributaries, Rock Creek east of Missoula, the Swan River and about two dozen creeks and tributaries of the Clark Fork and Flathead systems. They also target high-profile floating and fishing rivers such as the Dearborn, Smith, Madison, Gallatin, Boulder and Stillwater.

“This is a public land management priority,” said Kascie Herron, conservation associate for American Rivers, an advocacy group that put together the September Missouri float. “People are fearful of more government, and we try to explain it’s not — it’s the same government. This just elevates rivers to the same level with timber and grazing and minerals.”

River management style depends on the purpose of the designation, according to Rick Potts, former manager of the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was created in 1936, and its charter calls for high-quality wildlife habitat with grazing allowed.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have a specific focus on recreation, while the Bureau of Land Management includes recreation with grazing, mineral development and other priorities in its multi-use mandate. Wild and Scenic Rivers have no go-to federal overseer. BLM and FWS take care of the Missouri Wild and Scenic corridor, while the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service cooperate on the North Fork of the Flathead where it forms the border between their jurisdictions.

The Wild and Scenic River Act has another subtle feature, according to American Rivers Northern Rockies director Scott Bosse. While it specifically protects designated reaches — some as short as a single mile — it also enshrines the capabilities of the larger river that contribute to those “outstanding remarkable values.”

So, for example, opponents of the “megaload” shipments of tar sands refining equipment along the Lochsa River used its scenic river status in their court arguments to close Highway 12 to the oversized cargo transport plan. Moving huge loads of machinery through the river corridor would have greatly affected its outstanding remarkable values of wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.

“Now we’re starting to look at dam projects through the ecological perspective of climate change,” Bosse said. “We’re concerned that we’re going to start seeing dams proposed on rivers like never before.”

Part of the urgency, Potts said, was the growing momentum behind climate change mitigation. Many parts of the world consider hydroelectric dams a carbon-free alternative to burning fossil fuels.

After building about 60,000 dams on almost every major river in the continental United States in the mid-20th century, “We haven’t begun to see the demand for fresh, untapped water that’s coming,” Potts said. “By the end of the 21st century, communities that don’t control their own water will be held hostage to whomever does.”