Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Editorial: Montana’s congressional delegation should unite behind river protections bill

by Bozeman Daily Chronicle Editorial Board

A bill before Congress would designate as wild and scenic nearly 380 miles of Montana rivers as “wild and scenic.” A similar bill introduced in the last Congress was never afforded a vote. And the current measure languishes in committee with no immediate prospects for action.

That’s unfortunate. Montana has more unspoiled miles of river than nearly any other state. Those rivers are integral to the state’s $7.1 billion tourism industry. The water proposed for protection constitutes only about 0.002% of the state’s 170,000 miles of rivers. That’s two one-thousandths of one percent. But those few miles are vital to state’s recreation opportunities. Surely we can afford to remove that tiny fragment of waterway from the possibility of exploitation.

The bill, introduced by Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester, would protect portions of the Gallatin, Madison and Smith river drainages from threats like dams or mining. It would help if the other members of the state’s congressional delegation, Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale, would join Tester, a Democrat, in support of the measure. Unanimous support from the delegation would give the bill some momentum that might get it over the top.

This bill, the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, would protect 39 miles of the Gallatin River from the Yellowstone Park boundary to Spanish Creek. It would also protect portions of the Taylor Fork and Hyalite Creek, the latter being the source of much of Bozeman’s drinking water.

It’s important to note these protections do not infringe on any water rights or property owners’ rights to develop their land. But it would ensure the rivers are protected from the most destructive forms of exploitation.

It’s also of note that unanimous support from the delegation is not without precedent. Daines and then Rep. Greg Gianforte signed on to similar protections for East Rosebud Creek southwest of Billings, which successfully passed into law in 2018. And the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act has widespread support from conservationists, angling groups and local elected leaders.

In this time of divisive politics, there must be some places where we can find common ground. Protections for this tiny fraction of Montana’s rivers should be one of them.