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Protecting Yellowstone’s Waters: Proposed Legislation Would Safeguard More of Montana’s Rivers

A river flows over various rocks and is surrounded by coniferous trees and mountains in the background
The Stillwater River, one of the rivers in the proposed Montana Headwaters River Act. Photo by Isabel Amos-Landgraf.

Yellowstone National Park and the wilderness areas that surround it have long been cherished for their awe-inspiring mountains, diverse wildlife, and pristine, glacier-fed rivers. Not all of these rivers, however, are protected from dam projects that would alter their natural flow. U.S. Senator Jon Tester from Montana wants to change that.

In late October of 2020, Tester proposed the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, which would designate portions of 17 Montana rivers as wild and scenic rivers under federal protection. This designation would add some of the most prized rivers in Montana’s greater Yellowstone region to the landmark Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.

The 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act states that it aims to protect rivers’ “outstandingly remarkable values.” These values, which can be tangible or intangible, are determined by accompanying legislation as those factors that are “unique” and “exemplary” to the region or the country. They can include elements like a river’s history, plants, fish, scenery, recreational opportunities, and more.

A Wild and Scenic designation requires the creation of a Comprehensive River Management Plan, which is a document meant to ensure the maintenance of the river’s values. These plans must protect existing water rights and prevent mining or other commercial development that would change the free-flowing nature of the rivers and the health of their ecosystems.

Of great significance is this legislation’s capacity to prohibit federal approval of dam projects on any section of river that has been registered as Wild and Scenic. Dams have been shown to harm river ecosystems, fish, water quality, and recreational activities despite their energy and irrigation benefits to human populations. Dams have also been shown to change flooding risks and displace riverside communities.

Between forested mountains and a river, an artist paints two horses.
An artist paints two horses next to the Stillwater River. Photo by Isabel Amos-Landgraf.

Two groups, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Montanans for Healthy Rivers, provided the initial driving force behind the new proposal. In 2010, they started campaigns to discuss the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act with Montanans, including local landowners and tribal members. “One of our first steps was to conduct a lot of public outreach meetings to provide literacy about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and also to ask different communities which rivers in their backyard or their broader watershed should be protected,” Charles Drimal, the waters conservation coordinator at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, told GlacierHub.

A large part of this public outreach involved educating local communities about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. “What we found was that by sticking to the reality of what the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act does and does not do, particularly when it comes to its lack of impact on private property rights, water rights, and grazing, we assuaged a lot of fears that this was going to be some sort of federal takeover of people’s lands,” explained Drimal.

After initial education efforts, public involvement in the creation of this legislation was robust. “We ended up having scores of rivers nominated. At one point we had over 70 rivers that were nominated,” said Drimal. The public also came out to support the coalition’s draft legislation, with over 3,000 endorsements from individual Montanans and over 1,000 endorsements from Montanan businesses.

In 2018 alone, Yellowstone National Park recorded 4.1 million visits. Many travelers come to the region for opportunities to see wildlife, go fishing, and whitewater raft in Montanan rivers. In addition to supporting fishing and tourism economies, these rivers have significant cultural and spiritual value for the Crow and Blackfeet tribes.

Mist rises from a calm river as a bull elk swims across it.
An elk swims across the Snake River in Wyoming. Source: Diana Robinson on Flickr

The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act isn’t the only recent legislation to designate Wild and Scenic rivers in the Yellowstone region. “This was done on the heels of passing a pretty big Wild and Scenic Rivers package in the state of Wyoming, the Craig Thomas Snake Headwaters Act, that passed in 2009,” said Drimal.

Susan Marsh, a writer and former Forest Service employee in Montana and Wyoming, played an integral part in providing the inventory of Wyoming’s rivers for the Snake Headwaters Act and helped create the management plan for the rivers that were included in the act. She explained to GlacierHub why legislation, such as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, can be much more effective than agency regulations. “Legislation is not easily changed in comparison to regulations,” she said. “A law is stronger and more long-lasting, whereas an administrative designation can be changed more easily than a law.”

AA large mountain stands in the background and a river flows over lots of rocks.
The Stillwater River flowing through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Photo by Isabel Amos-Landgraf.

Montana’s rivers, especially those that have yet to be impacted by development projects, have long been valued by fishermen, whitewater rafters, local tribes, and all those who live in the  Yellowstone region.

Currently, only 0.4% of rivers in the U.S. are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Conversely, dams have been built in 17% of the nation’s rivers. The proposed bill would add 17 of Montana’s most valuable rivers to the small percentage that are protected for their ecological and scenic values. In the face of anthropogenic climate change, which is increasing the rate of glacial melt and the risk of forest fires, the protection of the ecological value provided by these rivers is more important than ever.

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