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Op-ed: Montana Headwaters Legacy Act is good for business

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A few months ago, I was fortunate to join a group of fellow Montanans on a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with our congressional delegation about the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act.

The MHLA is a made-in-Montana bill that would add 20 rivers and streams in the upper Missouri and Yellowstone river systems to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Wild and Scenic designation is the highest level of protection rivers can get in the U.S. It protects rivers from any federally permitted projects that would harm their free flow, clean water and outstandingly remarkable values. The idea for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was born right here in Montana, and we currently have five Wild and Scenic Rivers totaling about 388 river miles.

Among the waterways that the MHLA would protect are the Gallatin River and the Taylor Fork, both of which are heavily used and loved by members of the Big Sky community who fish, paddle and hike along them. Other notable rivers that would gain protection include the Boulder, West Boulder, Madison, Smith, Stillwater and Yellowstone. 

One of the highlights of our trip to the nation’s capital was meeting with Sen. Steve Daines, who is a frequent visitor to Big Sky. During our meeting, Daines listened to us as we talked about why we support the MHLA and how we think it’s good for business. And we listened to him as he told us why he thinks any new conservation designations should be balanced with measures that will make it easier to log, mine and conduct other extractive activities in appropriate places on our federal public lands.  

At the conclusion of our meeting, we all felt that Daines got the message that protecting our most valuable rivers by passing the MHLA is both immensely popular among residents of southwest Montana and greatly needed to maintain our thriving outdoor recreation economy and our equally vibrant agricultural economy. 

That’s why I was caught off guard when Daines said during a June 7 Senate subcommittee hearing that the MHLA was not thoroughly vetted or widely supported by local communities. My experience in Big Sky is that the MHLA enjoys virtually unanimous support among a wide array of stakeholders including fishing and whitewater guides and outfitters, outdoor shops, hotels, restaurants, and major development interests who understand the connection between healthy rivers and a thriving local economy.

I also have some personal experience living along and working on Wild and Scenic rivers, having been an outfitter on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in southern Oregon prior to moving to southwest Montana to take the helm at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. What that experience taught me is that protecting rivers and clean water isn’t just compatible with promoting thriving businesses in rural western communities; It’s a prerequisite. 

The bottom line is the MHLA is thoroughly vetted, deeply supported by nearly eight out of 10 Montanans, community driven and it strikes an elegant balance between conserving our most prized rivers while still allowing everyone to use and enjoy them. For those reasons, I strongly urge Daines to join Sen. Jon Tester in pushing the MHLA across the finish line by the end of the current Congress.

Brad Niva is the executive director of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce.

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