By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Legislation that would designate 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek as wild and scenic, thereby protecting the river in its free-flowing state, recently passed from the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and is now open on the Senate floor.

The wild and scenic designation comes from the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which safeguards the special character of rivers possessing outstanding scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values. Rivers designated wild and scenic are preserved in a free-flowing state. Approximately one-quarter mile of land on either bank is managed in a way that keeps the water clean and augments the river’s outstanding values.

“The East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act will protect 20 miles of public land along the creek from future proposed dams and prevent federal projects from impacting clean water and the remarkable values of the creek such as recreation, scenery and fish and wildlife habitat,” said Greater Yellowstone Coalition waters conservation associate Charles Wolf Drimal.

“East Rosebud lends access to some of the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery in Montana,” Drimal said. “It is a glacially carved valley surrounded by steep granite walls. Alpine lakes dot the drainage from the valley floor all the way up to its headwaters.”

Drimal said the river is a refuge for native trout, moose and bear, and a 26-mile trail along the East Rosebud that connects to Cooke City is a popular destination for recreationists. “Hundreds of hikers and backpackers hike [the Beaten Path] annually to experience its wildness.”

Senate Bill 501, East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed from the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on March 30, garnering bipartisan support from Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

“When Montanans work together, we get things done and this is a great example of on-the-ground collaboration,” Tester said in a March 30 press release. “Montanans know we need to protect the East Rosebud for our kids and grandkids—and we are one step closer to making that a reality.”

“Protecting the East Rosebud Creek is important to the local community and ensures future generations can enjoy it,” Daines said in the press release. “I’m looking forward to making this Montana’s first wild and scenic designation in over 30 years.” 

This is the third time the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has made it to Congress. The last time Congress passed a piece of legislation to designate a new Montana river as wild and scenic was 1976. Rivers in neighboring states, such as Wyoming, Idaho and Utah, have been named wild and scenic as recently as 2009. Less than one-half of 1 percent of Montana’s approximately 170,000 miles of river is designated as wild and scenic.

“My personal view is that Montana has not had a new wild and scenic designation since 1976 because there has not been a robust effort to add Montana rivers to the system since then, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is not widely known or well understood by most people. It’s not a household name,” said Mike Fiebig, associate director of American Rivers’ Northern Rockies chapter.

The effort to designate the East Rosebud as wild and scenic stems from repeated proposals to develop hydropower projects on the creek. The most recent proposal was in 2009, and would have included construction of a 100-foot wide diversion dam, a 2-mile long penstock, a substation, a powerhouse and transmission lines.

“Local residents were pretty upset,” Fiebig said. In order to protect the creek, individuals formed the conservation and non-profit group Friends of East Rosebud Creek, gaining statewide support from individuals, as well as interest groups such as American Rivers.

“Support for a wild and scenic designation in the East Rosebud valley is unanimous,” Drimal said. “Cowboys to kayakers are ready to stand up for East Rosebud Creek and this legislation. … Clean water, fishing, public lands, outdoor recreation and wildlife are core values that all Montanan’s care about.”

“Having [SB 501] pass will show that Montana is ready for more,” Fiebig said. “It’s exciting for rivers like the Gallatin, Taylor Fork, Yellowstone and Madison … rivers that people really love in Montana. I think that if East Rosebud can get the wild and scenic designation, it will pique people’s interest in getting the designation for rivers that they love.”

Montanans for Healthy Rivers, a coalition of businesses, watershed groups, private land owners, sportsmen and conservation groups, is working alongside American Rivers, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other interest groups to get a bill introduced that will protect a suite of rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

“Rivers like the Gallatin, Taylor Fork and segments of the Madison and Yellowstone have significant public support to be included in this future bill,” Drimal said.