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Montana Headwaters Legacy Act gains momentum

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A fly-fisherman casts on the Madison River. Portions of the river would be protected by the MHLA, if passed. PHOTO BY JACOB W. FRANK

Public input and bipartisan support needed to pass MHLA


The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act is inching ever closer to becoming a reality.

The renewed momentum is due in part to local nonprofits and business owners who worked for four days in Washington, D.C. earlier this spring to build consensus for the popular bill that would ultimately protect hundreds of Montana river miles.

Some Republican members of Montana’s Congressional delegation have signaled that they’re open to supporting the bill in the upcoming session, which could give it the bipartisan support needed to make the bill a law.

“This bill is as popular as beer and huckleberries in Montana, really,” said Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies Regional Director of American Rivers, an organization created to help protect rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The bill is supported by more than 80% of Montanans.

The MHLA would designate 20 rivers in the northern Yellowstone Ecosystem as Wild and Scenic, preserving their free-flowing nature and protecting their wild, scenic, or recreational values. The designation would prohibit the federal government from permitting any new dam projects on the designated sections, and water quality would need to be maintained or improved.

The act would allow public access and recreation—including motorized recreation—to continue as currently managed.

Since the introduction of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the law has been amended 32 times to designate additional rivers and protects 12,709 miles of rivers in 40 states and Puerto Rico. But 42 years passed without an additional Wild and Scenic designation in Montana, until a proposed dam on East Rosebud Creek expedited protection efforts. In 2018, 21 miles of the creek were protected under the act.

The East Rosebud legislation was originally part of the MHLA. But the imminent threat of dam development led lawmakers to introduce it separately. Protections for East Rosebud were fervently supported by local landowners and Montanans, and passed with unanimous support from the Montana delegation, including current senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

If the measure passes, extraordinary reaches of the 20 rivers ranging from the Madison River in the west, the Smith River in the Little Belt mountains, and east to Rock Creek in the Beartooth mountain range will be protected in perpetuity. The MHLA would more than double the number of designated river miles in Montana.

A cow and calf moose wade through the Gallatin River. Thirty-nine miles of the river would fall under federal protection if the MHLA passes. PHOTO BY NEAL HERBERT

The bill was first introduced in 2020 by Tester. This will be the third time the bill has been introduced to Congress. Tester introduced the bill into the 117th Congressional session in 2021, where it stalled in committee due in part to skepticism from Daines.

“If you actually look at the way Sen. Daines has voted on public lands bills since he got elected to Congress, oftentimes he starts out being skeptical of additional federal protections. It’s kind of in his DNA to be suspect of new federal protections.

“But oftentimes, at the end of the journey, he hops on board and votes the right way. I hope he sees us trying to address every concern he’s had, and I hope he understands that we’re meeting with the handful of groups that have opposed this legislation to try and address their concerns,” Bosse said.

The third time’s the charm in garnering bipartisan support for the bill

Advocates remain optimistic the values of the MHLA align well with the desire of Montana politicians on both sides of the aisle to listen to their constituents and protect Montana’s rivers and recreation economy.

Eric Ladd, board member of the Gallatin River Task Force and chairman of Outlaw Partners (the publisher of Explore Big Sky), is optimistic that with enough public support, and perhaps some additional outreach from Montanans, Daines as well as house representatives Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke will show support for the bill this session.

“It seems fitting that on the 30th anniversary of ‘A River Runs Through It’ that this legislation gets passed to protect some of the very rivers featured in the movie,” Ladd said.

Recently, executives from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, American Rivers, Gallatin River Task Force, American Whitewater, Outlaw Partners and a Missoula-based fishing guide recently met with the Montana Delegation to garner support during the upcoming Congressional session. Representatives from organizations supporting the MHLA came back from Washington with optimism the bill will receive support from the Montana Delegation this session, but called upon the public to call and write to their representatives and show their support.

“Sen. Daines’ office is decorated in pictures of the rivers that this legislation protects. I just feel that [the Republican members of the delegation] need to hear from Montanans, that Montanans want this done and they want it done this year,” Ladd said.

Tester remains as committed as ever to designate more river miles in Montana as Wild and Scenic. In support of the bill, Tester cites the $7.1 billion outdoor economy in the state.

“This bill was crafted by conservationists, outfitters, and recreationalists alike, and it will ensure that some of our most pristine rivers will be enjoyed by the next generations of young Montanans, and untouched by special interests for years to come,” Tester said.

Congressman Ryan Zinke has not publicly taken a position one way or another on the bill, but advocates are hopeful they’ll receive his support after recent meetings.

“[Zinke] is still vetting the legislation and will have some fact-finding meetings this summer on the proposal once we wrap up the appropriations bills. The congressman welcomes the public’s input. They can submit comments on the website at,” wrote Heather Swift, Zinke’s Chief of Staff.

Daines has not taken a firm position on the bill or extended comments beyond the 2022 committee hearing, but says he remains open to hearing from Montana citizens.

“If the bill is reintroduced this Congress, Sen. Daines will be looking at the text and listening to stakeholders,” said Rachel Dumke, press secretary for Daines’ office.

Congressman Rosendale has not made a public statement about his position on the bill, and did not respond to Explore Big Sky’s request for comment by the deadline of this story.

Tester will keep pushing for the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act.

“I’ll keep fighting until we get it across the finish line, and I’m hopeful that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will join me to help to make it happen,” Tester said.

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