By Matt Hudson Explorebigsky.com Editorial Assistant
Many of Montana’s rivers are wild. Most of them are scenic. But when Congress officially attaches these labels to a river, they want that river preserved.
That’s the mission of American Rivers, a national conservation organization started in 1973. Its Northern Rockies office is located in Bozeman.
“Hopefully, in a couple of months, the words ‘wild and scenic’ will be well-known in the region,” said Michael Fiebig, the Associate Director for American Rivers.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1968, was established to preserve the natural qualities of rivers that, as the act states, have “outstandingly remarkable values” and to offset the emergence of new hydropower dams. These values could include fisheries, recreation, geology, scenery and wildlife.
A river segment must be free-flowing and possess one or more of the values in order to be protected under the act. A river corridor becomes officially wild and scenic through a congressional act, often brought up alongside other measures in an omnibus bill. Once designated, various federal agencies protect the river’s undeveloped condition. Recreational activities generally are not prohibited on a wild and scenic river.
“The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is really good at keeping things the way they are,” Fiebig said.
In Montana, 368 of the state’s river miles, or 0.2 percent, hold this distinction. The North, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River are designated, as well as 149 miles of the Missouri River headwaters.
By comparison, Oregon has more than five times as many wild and scenic river miles as Montana. Washington has roughly half the mileage of Montana.
Scott Bosse, director of the American Rivers Northern Rockies office, says that a wild and scenic designation is an insurance policy against disrupting infrastructure, such as dams or diversions. His goal is to get more of Montana’s river miles studied and considered for protection under the act.
“One of our major strategies these past couple of years has been to increase the number of rivers that are eligible for protection,” he said.
Two agencies that manage waterways, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, study rivers in their jurisdictions and compile lists of eligible sites when land management plans are updated.
According to the Forest Service, just over 1,400 river miles statewide are “eligible and suitable” for wild and scenic designation. That includes a 39-mile stretch of the Gallatin River that runs north from Yellowstone Park.
The BLM’s Butte field office completed its wild and scenic river study in 2006 as part of its most recent land management plan. It identified a total of 12 eligible miles in four sites within its regional jurisdiction, which includes land around Helena, Bozeman, Big Sky and Butte.
Each agency studies the “outstandingly remarkable values” of each river segment, and this research provides background information for Congress members who may propose a wild and scenic designation. The eligible segments enjoy interim protection until a final decision is made.
American Rivers also conducts research. Bosse said they have met with more than 60 conservation groups, federal agencies, land trusts and others for input.
“We rely a lot on partners,” Fiebig said. “So we try to bring together a lot of the best minds in the business and hopefully stand on their shoulders to compile this information. We couldn’t do it without those folks.”
But the research only goes so far. For Congress to pass designation, public support is imperative.
“It has to be a public process, so we take that into consideration,” said Mary Erickson, the forest supervisor for the Gallatin and Custer National Forests.
American Rivers has built up a campaign to engage the public about wild and scenic river designation by joining other conservation groups to form Montanans for Healthy Rivers. It hopes to create a groundswell of support that will catch the attention of state lawmakers so they’ll take action in Washington, D.C.
“Ultimately, local communities have the loudest voice in this process,” Bosse said. “All the science in the world could say, ‘these are high-value rivers, they should be protected,’ but unless you reach out to the public and get their input and their feedback, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Bosse and Fiebig see a resurgence of public support for river protection and want to have more designations come on the heels of recent conservation efforts led by Montana legislators.
In June, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines introduced the North Fork Watershed Protection Act to the House. The bill would restrict mineral development on parts of the Flathead River and has the support of U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.
In May, Baucus inserted a section into the Water Resources Development Act that allocated $30 million for river and floodplain restoration in Montana and Idaho. The provision passed in the Senate and is awaiting a House vote.
While public support weighs heavily on the decision to give river segments wild and scenic designation, the public sentiment is not unanimous.
Dr. Duncan Patten is the hydro-ecologist for the Montana Water Center, a water issues research facility at Montana State University. He says that as climate change continues, mountains are holding less snow, and the strength of Montana’s watersheds is diminishing.
Water sources in southwest Montana feed major river systems in western parts of the country and while the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act does not address water rights, it’s the only piece of legislation that prevents the federal government from constructing a dam. A proposal for water diversion could receive increased scrutiny if it affects a wild and scenic segment downstream.
As the demand for clean water increases, Patten says public support may rally behind dams to keep more water in Montana reservoirs. The question lies in people’s values and how they perceive water management.
“Some people say, ‘store it all, build a dam.’ Other people say, ‘we want it absolutely pristine. Don’t do anything to it.’ Those are important inputs,” he said.
For many, values lie between the two sides, and the lack of a clear majority might have its own effect on legislation. The decisions made for Montana watersheds could affect millions of water consumers downstream.
Those values carrying the loudest voice may be the ones that catch the ear of legislators and ultimately decide the fate of Montana’s water systems.
“Everybody has their values as to what to do with their water,” Patten said. “And those all have to play a role in where this goes.”