Explore Big Sky: Gallatin River up for federal protection

by Julia Barton

BIG SKY – A 39-mile section of the Gallatin River is being considered for the highest federal protection possible as part of the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, a bill introduced by Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Tester stood along the bank of the Gallatin River in October of 2020 to announce the bill, which would serve to federally protect nearly 350 miles of river in southwest Montana, including the Gallatin, Madison and Smith rivers. Now, nearly two years later, the battle over this potentially monumental piece of legislation is still underway. The MHLA would protect 39 river miles of the Gallatin, running from Yellowstone National Park to the Spanish Creek confluence, by federally designating these waterways as wild and scenic.

Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met in Washington D.C. on June 8 to discuss a number of topics relating to land preservation and agricultural practices nationwide, the MHLA among them. This act would nearly double the current 388 miles-approximately 1 percent of Montana’s rivers-of river designated in the state as wild and scenic.

“I think [the Gallatin] is such a precious resource for our community it really behooves us to make sure that it’s protected in perpetuity,” said Kristin Gardner, chief executive and science officer for the Gallatin River Task Force.

Congress established the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1968 to federally preserve the free-flowing nature pertinent rivers, and the MHLA would be an offshoot from the initial act. River classifications include: Wild river areas, those free of dams, accessible only by trail and are largely unpolluted; scenic river areas, those that are free of dams, accessible by roads and largely undeveloped; and recreational river areas, those that are that are readily accessible, may have some development and may have previously been dammed.

This protection would ensure that the Gallatin remains a free-flowing river, Gardner explained. The Gallatin is, however, already being managed as wild and scenic by the U.S. Forest Service, but Gardner said that without protection, that could change.

By implementing the bill, the Forest Service would be required to develop a comprehensive river management plan to maintain the water quality of the river at the time of designation. This would require the Forest Service to protect the Gallatin, as well as the other rivers protected in the bill, from degrading water quality.

At the June 8 hearing, representatives from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management provided testimonies in support of the MHLA. On the other side, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines from Montana expressed his concerns with the bill, citing letters of opposition received from 173 Montana landowners expressing unease about how the act would affect agriculture, irrigation and land management.

Brad Niva, CEO of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky, joined Gardner and other local stakeholders to lobby for the act in D.C. in early May. The group discussed the MHLA with both Tester and Daines, advocating for what the bill would protect in southwest Montana.

Niva said the chamber has supported the act since its inception and will continue to stand in support of designating the Gallatin and other Montana rivers as part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. In his eyes, federal protection of the Gallatin is vital to its longevity as a resource to the Big Sky community.

“[Protection] would actually improve business and ensure the fact that [the Gallatin] will be here for generations to come,” Niva told EBS, addressing concerns raised by Daines in the hearing.

“You’re not gonna get 100 percent support,” Gardner said. “But I think we have over 80 percent of Montana’s support with this effort, so we feel like we have a lot more support than what was indicated from [Daines] at the hearing.”

For now, the hearing is the latest in governmental process regarding the MHLA and while next steps have yet to be determined, members of the public can submit letters of support or opposition to the senate committee until Wednesday, June 22 for consideration.