Washington Post: The rivers run through it, and Jon Tester wants them protected for Montana

by Nick Ehli

BOZEMAN, Mont. – More than a dozen crystalline rivers ribbon out of the mountains in the southwest corner of this state, free-flowing through canyons, valleys and prairies before emptying into the Missouri River and helping to sustain a nation.

“This is the best that Mother Earth has to offer,” says Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester. “But if we do nothing, they will disappear.”

At a time of intense economic and political crosscurrents – both here and in Washington – Tester (D) is pushing legislation to protect 336 miles of these rivers. He believes that his effort is more than a parochial concern, that the fate of streams and tributaries in the shadow of Yellowstone National Park matters to many Americans.

The approach is not novel; Tester’s proposed Montana Headwaters Legacy Act would place its 17 targets under a landmark federal law that over the past half-century has helped preserve the “outstandingly remarkable” features of more than 12,700 miles of wild and scenic waterways across the country. The safeguards can block dams, transmission lines and most anything else that would pollute the water or sully the view.

Until now that law has had little impact here, an irony given the state’s renowned beauty. More than twice as many river miles are designated for protection in Idaho, nearly five times as many in Oregon.

Yet with a copper mine in the works on land near Montana’s prized Smith River, the bill’s goals seem especially timely.

“There is going to be more and more pressure put on the air and the water every day,” Tester warned when he announced the bill along the Gallatin River in late October. “We are really past the time to do something about it.”

His call to action comes at a crucial time for Montana. The census will have to confirm its pandemic-induced swell in population, but the signs are abundant. In Gallatin County – which includes several rivers in Tester’s measure and is one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties – the price of a home rose nearly 61 percent last year to $699,000. Out-of-state license plates are no longer an anomaly, crowds bloat once-lonely trails and rivers, and locals long for a harsh winter to chase off the newcomers.

The state’s politics are shifting, too. Splitting tickets is a source of pride for many residents, but Tester has seen his party’s fortunes plummet. In November, Republicans handily won every statewide and federal race and added seats to their legislative majorities. Once predictably purple, Montana went full-on red – the first presidential election year that a party has run the table since 1936, according to Chuck Johnson, the dean of the state’s political reporters.

And many of the successful candidates campaigned for fewer regulations. “Less government, more jobs” is the calling card of the state’s other senator in Washington, Republican Steve Daines, who two months ago walloped the outgoing governor and challenger Steve Bullock.

Whether that mind-set will be a boon for loggers and miners is up for debate. Either way, it doesn’t encourage a measure like Tester’s, which is fundamentally a government regulation.

Tester, though, is banking that clean rivers can be part of a recovering economy, that not all politics must end with a winner and a loser and that diverse interests can come together to protect the waters that drew many to Montana in the first place.

“Protecting rivers shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” agreed Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, one of several conservation groups supporting the bill. “After all, no one remembers who supported a tax cut. They remember who protected the wilderness and the rivers they love.”

The work leading up to the proposed legislation began a decade ago when a coalition of conservation organizations led some 400 public meetings to ask Montanans what rivers they viewed most worthy.

What resulted was a list that includes the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Stillwater and Madison, a “who’s who” inventory, said Charles Drimal with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “We have national treasures here.”

The senator may seem an odd figure to champion the effort since he doesn’t hunt or hike and rarely has time to fish. He is a farmer, though, the only one in the Senate, and works the land his grandparents homesteaded in north-central Montana. You can find him there almost every weekend, planting or harvesting, fixing something, always hoping for just enough rain.

“We rent this Earth from our kids,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s best we don’t screw it up.”

The addition of Montana’s East Rosebud Creek to the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2018 bodes well for Tester’s bill. Daines and then-Rep. Greg Gianforte, the state’s new GOP governor, supported the creek’s inclusion to ward off a hydraulic dam in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Gianforte even featured the creek in campaign ads.

There is precedence for bipartisan support of protecting rivers here, noted Sara Guenther, a political science researcher at Montana State University. “But now we aren’t talking about one river. We’re talking about 17.”

One person important to the outcome is Matt Rosendale. The former state auditor won the state’s only House seat in November – two years after he lost to Tester in an ugly Senate election. President Donald Trump repeatedly visited Montana in 2018 to stump for him and, more to the point, against Tester.

Rosendale hasn’t stated his position on the pending measure. But it’s difficult to see him doing any favors for Tester, who noted in his book “Grounded” that Rosendale, a transplanted millionaire from Maryland, pronounces “Montana” with a clearly-you-aren’t-from-here accent.

“What flips his switch?” Tester said in the interview. “We will find out. He may oppose everything I do.”

Regardless, with Democrats now controlling the Senate, a friendly hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is much more likely – to say nothing of the legislation’s passage and President Biden’s signature.

Yet Tester isn’t playing only to party. He believes there is plenty for regulation-adverse Montanans to like about his proposal. Clean and plentiful water is vital to agriculture – a bellwether for the state’s economy – and those outdoors-loving tourists and coronavirus refugees aren’t showing up for smog and defiled streams. Many spend big on rafts and fishing waders, shotguns and hunting vests. The Outdoor Industry Association hypes outdoor recreation in Montana as a $7.1 billion industry.

Jason Fleury, president of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, agrees that the benefit of safeguarding rivers is twofold.

“Obviously, doing so is good business,” said Fleury, whose group represents 1,000 guides and outfitters. “The flip side is that 99 percent of us got into this business because we love these places and want to share them.”

A potential outlier issue is the copper mine under construction near Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith River. The Smith, which on a map looks like a broken zipper, all zigs and zags, is indeed legendary. Thousands of people enter an annual lottery for the right to float it, starting at the single permitted put-in and ending their float nearly 60 miles later. Tester’s act would protect 24 of those miles.

The mine is being built on private property, but Sandfire Resources America, the company behind it, holds another 525 permits on adjacent land in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. There, the protections afforded by Tester’s proposal would impede more mining.

Sandfire is adamant that neither Sheep Creek nor the Smith will be harmed and emphasizes the project’s massive potential for the economy of central Montana, most notably the small town of White Sulphur Springs. The company expects to spend $300 million constructing the mine and plans to hire 240 people to retrieve an estimated billion pounds of copper.

“I don’t see any impact with the kind of mining we are doing,” said Senior Vice President Jerry Zieg, who grew up in the area. “If they did it like they did 50 years ago, yeah, different story, but that’s not how we do things.”

Montana is littered, though, with the good intentions of mining companies. Tester sees the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act as a necessary insurance policy.

“This will ensure they do it right,” Tester said. “Once it’s gone, you can’t protect it.”