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Water Wisdom: The story of the Middle Fork

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A view of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River from the author’s inflatable kayak. PHOTO BY RYAN M. NEWCOMB


For the better part of six wonderful days in August, I had the unparalleled experience of paddling and kayaking 75 miles of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which winds and flows 112 miles through Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness. The voyage ended up being a profound educational opportunity, and one that would renew my passion for the Gallatin and what we can do to protect and restore this treasured resource.

Located in what is one of the most remote parts of the Lower 48, the Middle Fork of the Salmon is renowned for its fish habitat, world-class whitewater and overall beauty. It is also a place entwined with the ancient stories of indigenous tribes who hunted and fished there for millennia.

Even with such isolation—and the added federal protection as a Wild and Scenic River—it is a river increasingly threatened by outside forces, and the native Chinook salmon that once migrated to this sacred river to spawn in the tens of thousands are near extinction.

On our trip we learned about the plight of the Chinook from a U.S. Forest Service guide and colleagues from American Rivers. These massive, bright red fish make an 800-mile migration upstream from the Pacific Ocean to the Salmon River to their spawning grounds. Not only is the survival of this fish vital to river life and habitat health, some of the greatest carnivorous animals in the region and world count on the Chinook salmon as a source of nourishment.

As we wound through the arid rock canyons of the Middle Fork, we kept a constant lookout for any sign of this fleeting native fish. The crisis was reinforced when we didn’t see any at all, the entire trip. We were told that the Forest Service has only identified four Chinook salmon on the entire Middle Fork this season. This was a stark and glaring reminder that if we do not act now to protect and address threats to our own watersheds and rivers at home, we could look back years from now and see devastating consequences to native fish, aquatic life or even entire river systems.

It is clear from research that outdated and financially unsustainable dams throughout the Columbia River basin downstream from the Middle Fork have combined with warming temperatures and an unaddressed climate crisis to create this reality. This has mortal consequence for the Chinook, and subsequently, other animals like eagles and bears.

The question we must now ask ourselves in Big Sky is whether we can learn from the story of the Middle Fork, to prevent further damage happening to this beloved, great river that is the Gallatin.

When it comes to the Gallatin watershed, we see similarities in climate data and ecosystem changes to that of the Middle Fork. We’re experiencing impaired streams and tributaries, invasive species and aquifers drying up. Streambank degradation and the broad, intense use of the river and nearby trails compromise the integrity of the watershed. And critically, warming air and water temperatures combined with nutrient overload resulted in the largest algae bloom ever recorded on the Gallatin in 2018.

We cannot ignore the threats facing the Gallatin, only to look back years from now and see that the domino effect of inaction here was similarly catastrophic to aquatic life and the river system.

What we must determine now is what are the next, greatest, and most profound needs of this river that is the lifeblood of our greater Big Sky community. We must communicate with and educate everyone in our region about the great needs surrounding water conservation and river restoration. Together we must act as a community to ensure that we have a healthy, clean and pristine Gallatin for future generations.

Ryan M. Newcomb is the director of development for the Gallatin River Task Force in Big Sky.

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