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A New Year’s wishlist for Montana’s rivers

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Water flows through a section of the Madison River below the Hebgen Dam. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER


Now that 2022 is in the books, it’s time to reflect on the past year and ponder our hopes and dreams for 2023. As someone whose job it is to protect and conserve Montana’s bounty of spectacular rivers, I’ll say that last year was a momentous one due to the 500-year flood events on the Yellowstone River and several of its tributaries along the Absaroka-Beartooth front.

If these historic floods taught us anything, it’s that we need to give rivers ample room to roam within their floodplains and steer development away from high-hazard areas to minimize the loss of life and property. Kudos to Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly for heeding this lesson and deciding not to immediately rebuild the flood-ravaged road along the Gardiner River between Gardiner and Mammoth.

As for the coming year, here are some of my top wishes for Montana’s rivers:

  • Montana’s entire congressional delegation gets behind Senator Jon Tester’s Montana Headwaters Legacy Act and Congress passes it, forever protecting 20 rivers and 385 river miles in the upper Missouri and Yellowstone river systems. Among the treasured waters that would gain protection when this visionary legislation passes are portions of the Boulder, Gallatin, Madison, Smith, and Yellowstone rivers.
  • Senator Steve Daines releases his hold on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act and Congress passes this locally crafted legislation that’s been over a decade in the making. Among other things, this popular bill would protect the headwaters of the Blackfoot River by adding 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas.
  • The Montana Supreme Court upholds a state district court ruling that found the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) wrongly issued a permit for the Black Butte Copper Mine in the headwaters of the Smith River. The mine is located on Sheep Creek, the Smith River’s most important rainbow trout spawning tributary.
  • The Montana DEQ determines that the middle segment of the Gallatin River from the Yellowstone National Park boundary down to Spanish Creek is impaired by algal blooms from nutrient pollution in Big Sky. Once this happens, the state must develop a cleanup plan to restore the river back to health.
  • The U.S. and Canadian governments agree that selenium contamination from mountaintop removal coal mining in the Elk River drainage in southern British Columbia is harming aquatic life on our side of the border in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, and the issue is finally referred to the International Joint Commission, which was created to address such disputes.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) orders the owners of the former Smurfit-Stone property along the Clark Fork River between Missoula and Frenchtown to clean up this toxic site so it no longer poses an acute threat to fish, wildlife, and people during major flood events.
  • Governor Greg Gianforte and the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature reject proposed bills by Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Libby) and others that take direct aim at Montanans’ constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

Unfortunately, none of these wishes are likely to come true if Montanans sit on the sidelines and wait for our elected leaders and agency officials to do the right thing. You can bet that out-of-state special interests like Sandfire Resources, Teck Coal and International Paper Company will spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying to maintain the status quo so they can rake in huge profits and stick Montanans with their cleanup costs. That’s why I urge every Montanan who cherishes our rivers to join American Rivers and their local watershed group to learn how you can make a difference in the new year.

Scott Bosse is the Northern Rockies Director for American Rivers based in Bozeman. He has fished, paddled, and hiked along Montana’s rivers for over three decades.

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