Legacy Act would protect 336 miles of rivers in Treasure State
By Brandon Walker, Gabrielle Gasser and Mira Brody
GALLATIN GATEWAY – In the Lakota Tribe, the phrase “Mní wičhóni” means “Water is life.” Montana Sen. Jon Tester embraced this quote on Oct. 27 as he introduced the monumental Montana Headwaters Legacy Act from the TroutChasers & Fly Fishing Outfitters Lodge in Gallatin Gateway on the banks of the Gallatin River.
Surrounded by representatives from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, American Rivers and American Whitewaters, a crowd of about 20, Tester spoke about the act, a piece of new legislation that would protect 336 river miles in the Custer-Gallatin and the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests, including the Gallatin, Madison and Smith rivers. It is the most significant wild and scenic designation in nearly 45 years.
“The bottom line is, if you can hear the water running behind us, that’s what it’s all about,” Tester said.
Among the organizations present, all spoke of the unifying power rivers have in Montana culture—they are a place to recreate, seek peace from a fast-paced life, enjoy the company of family, and pass down to the next generation.
“It’s a real monumental moment and it just makes me proud as a Montanan to see this next step, and also incredibly appreciative of Senator Tester for his vision and his leadership to protect these incredible resources in Montana,” said Charles Drimal, waters program coordinator with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Drimal noted that protecting Montana’s iconic rivers protect three key components: the economy, enviroment and quality of life.
Kascie Herron, associate director of outreach and communications for the American Rivers Northern Rockies Office, was also pleased with the announcement.
“Today is the biggest day I’ve had since I started working in American Rivers,” Herron said. “It’s like all of our hard work is actually going to pay off.”
The announcement is but the first step in a long and potentially difficult process.
“It’s not going to happen during the lame duck so it’ll happen next Congress,” Tester told EBS of the process ahead. “We’ll try to talk with the [U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources] to have a hearing on it and then we’ll get somebody to testify in favor of it. Somebody will … testify against it, probably. And then we’re off and running.”
The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act has been in development for the last decade, led by a collaborative effort called Montanans for Healthy Rivers. According to healthyriversmt.org, more than 1,000 businesses and three times that amount of residents support Montanans for Healthy Rivers. If passed, the identified waterways would receive coveted classification as Wild and Scenic Rivers.
“We’re not to the finish line yet, but this is a crucial milestone and one that we’ve been working toward for a decade,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director of American Rivers. “So we’re extremely pleased about it and we hope the other members of our congressional delegation will join Senator Tester in this effort.”
More than 50 years ago, the Congress established the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and in March of 2019 the system has already provided conservation protections for more than 225 rivers throughout the U.S.
The effort strives to permanently protect sections of rivers by prohibiting federal support for potentially destructive projects such as dams or other activities that would harm the river’s free-flowing condition, water quality or outstanding resource values. A Wild and Scenic designation does not, however, affect existing water rights or existing jurisdiction of states and the federal governments, according to healthyriversmt.org.
“The beauty of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is it’s like an insurance policy,” Drimal said. “It basically guarantees you that you are going to have a free-flowing river with existing water quality, today, tomorrow and for years and generations to come.”
Both Bosse and Drimal noted the economic benefits of river conservation acknowledging that recreational activities in Montana are a large driver of the state’s economy. Bosse was impressed by the sheer numbers of Montanans he saw at rivers this summer, many of whom said they were seeking refuge from the anxieties of the pandemic. Rivers, he said, help heal the bodies and minds of veterans after they come back from war and where family members take their loved ones, even after they pass away.
“Almost every time I’m at Camp Baker [on the Smith River] … I see people bring urns onto their rafts,” Bosse said. “People unbearably tell me that they promised their father or their grandfather or their mother or their sister that when they passed away, that they would take them on one last trip on their favorite river.”
It’s these kinds of heartfelt family pilgrimages that these groups and many Montanans hope will be protected by the legislation for generations to come.
“If we don’t do smart things to protect our resources, they won’t be here,” Tester said. “They won’t be here for our kids and they won’t be here for our grandkids.”
He admitted that the process to pass this could at times become difficult, but, in closing, expressed confidence that the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act will reach the finish line.
“If we all stay focused on what we want to accomplish here, we can get her done,” Tester said.