By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Frank and John Craighead were catalysts for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act after they successfully fought a dam proposal on northern Montana’s Middle Fork of the Flathead River in the late 1950s.

The brothers, famed conservation biologists in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, began advocating for a comprehensive system to protect the nation’s rivers, and President Johnson signed the act into law in 1968. In 1976, the Middle, North and South forks of the Flathead – along with 149 miles of the Missouri River – were protected under the law.

There hasn’t been a Montana river mile federally protected since.

A coalition called Montanans for Healthy Rivers is hoping to change that, and has identified about 500 miles on roughly 50 rivers in the state that are eligible for Wild and Scenic designation. Montana has nearly 170,000 miles of rivers and 368 of those are currently protected.

In order to be recognized under the Wild and Scenic Act, a river must be free flowing and demonstrate one remarkable value – having exceptional scenery, fishing, wildlife or recreation opportunities, for example. Each river in the national system is administered with the objective of protecting the values that caused it to be designated.

“We have some of the last, best free-flowing, clean and cold rivers in the U.S., yet hardly any of them are protected with permanent river conservation,” said Charles Wolf Drimal, River Conservation Associate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which is part of the steering committee. “We have a monumental opportunity here in Montana to unite the business community, sportsmen community, private landowners, and conservationists on one issue – healthy rivers.”

The coalition started about five years ago and along with GYC, includes American Rivers, American Whitewater, the Pacific River Council and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The group also has the support of more than 150 businesses and sportsmen’s groups around the state, according to Mike Fiebig, American Rivers Associate Director of the Northern Rockies Region.

“We think now is the time to start asking Montanans what rivers they’d like to protect for future generations,” Fiebig said. “We’re lucky enough to have a fairly intact set of rivers, in fairly good condition, which many other states do not.”

Montanans for Healthy Rivers holds meetings, roundtables and one-on-one discussions around the state, ahead of a citizens proposal they plan to release in late April or early May. The Gallatin River is being considered under the proposal and a roundtable was held on Jan. 27 at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky. The discussion brought together business leaders, property owners, community members and local nonprofits.

“[The roundtable] was really helpful … It’s hard to imagine anybody would find issue with the designation,” said Marne Hayes, director of an organization that advocates on behalf of the state’s public lands, called Business for Montana’s Outdoors.

“We always take the stance that the outdoors in Montana give businesses added value,” Hayes said.

Business for Montana’s Outdoors polled nearly 200 businesses in every county of the state last year. The organization found that 70 percent of those polled attributed the “Montana outdoor lifestyle” to locating or expanding their business in the state, according to its website, and that 73 percent believe Montana can protect its land and water resources and have a strong economy at the same time.

“We’re totally behind it and look at it as an insurance policy,” said Paul Robertson, General Manager at LMR. “The number one economic driver [in Big Sky] is the quality of the river. When we look at our business model we want to know that the environment will be in the same condition it is now … that’s why people come to Big Sky.”

Kristin Gardner, Executive Director of the Gallatin River Task Force (formerly known as Blue Water Task Force), was also at the January meeting, and when American Rivers contacted her organization last winter to solicit community outreach about the proposal, she welcomed the opportunity.

“Having the designation [on the Gallatin] will add an extra layer of protection,” Gardner said. “There is that hope that once it has [Wild and Scenic] designation people might value it differently.”

GRTF hosted a showing of “DamNation” – a documentary about dam removal in the U.S. and its positive effects on river ecology – at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in July. Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous River Sports and Jackson Hole Kayak School in Jackson, Wyo., spoke about the positive economic effects that the Wild and Scenic designation of the Snake River has had on his community.

In spring 2014, Montanans for Healthy Rivers hired two independent polling services – one conservative and one liberal, according to Drimal – to gauge public feedback on the proposal. More than 400 Montanans were asked about the added value of rivers to their lifestyle – 85 percent believe healthy rivers are important to the economy and their way of life, and 75 percent believe the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is valuable and should be used in the state.

“This shows Montanans are intimately connected to our rivers,” Drimal said.

After the citizen proposal is released this spring, Montanans for Healthy Rivers will host community meetings around the state before refining it into a federal legislative proposal.

“We want to hear what Montanans have to say,” Fiebig said. “We want to advocate for the protection of rivers that local communities also want protected.”