Diverse Interests Unite to Protect the Yellowstone River

Yellowstone RiverThe Crow name for the Yel­low­stone was Elk River, while French fur traders called it LaRoche Jaune. To us it is sim­ply the Great River. The head­wa­ters of the Yel­low­stone River are in Wyoming, Mon­tana and Yel­low­stone National Park, the world’s first national park. This river has the dis­tinc­tion of being the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. The River’s 700-mile long jour­ney takes it though wilder­ness moun­tains, beau­ti­ful val­leys, open prairies and cot­ton­wood bot­toms to join with the Mis­souri River.

An excit­ing his­tory of human events has flowed out of the high moun­tains with this river. Evi­dence of early human occu­pa­tion in North Amer­ica is found along the Yellowstone’s river­banks. The same shel­ter caves of Pleis­tocene peo­ple also hosted the nomadic Indi­ans who fol­lowed the sea­sons of the year, killed the buf­falo, “bor­rowed” horses from Cap­tain Clark. The trade forts of early trap­pers cozied up to their high­way, the Yel­low­stone River. George Custer first met Crazy Horse and Sit­ting Bull in the cot­ton­wood bot­toms of the Yel­low­stone. The Sioux would meet Custer again as well as set­tlers who also cov­eted the buf­falo coun­try for their cat­tle. The Boze­man Trail, steam­boats and then the iron horse brought sour­doughs, cow­boys, sod­busters, town builders and the early tourists eager to face the dan­gers of explor­ing the Yellowstone.

There is no more impor­tant fea­ture of the region than the Yel­low­stone River. It is on this frag­ile resource so much is depen­dent. It pro­vides a back­drop to com­mu­ni­ties that nes­tle against it shores. Our eco­nomic foun­da­tions, the via­bil­ity of com­mu­ni­ties and the envi­ron­ment in which we raise our fam­i­lies all are sus­tained by this river. Agri­cul­ture, indus­try, cities, recre­ation and wildlife are all nour­ished by this untamed river. Rare and threat­ened species such as pad­dle­fish and pal­lid stur­geon still cling to frag­ile habi­tats. The con­stantly chang­ing flood­plains pro­vide habi­tat for dozens of species of birds and other wildlife.

The Nations mas­sive energy boom of oil, gas and coal is founded on the car­bon rich geol­ogy that under­lies the Yel­low­stone and Pow­der River Basins. Coal exports from the region surge. The inter­na­tion­ally sized Bakken oil devel­op­ment cre­ates jobs but there are impacts as pro­duc­tion moves west into the Yel­low­stone Basin. Once quiet cities along the Yel­low­stone River now boom with the bus­tle of new devel­op­ment and expan­sion as they try to cope with the mul­ti­ple chal­lenges of sup­ply­ing the neces­si­ties of space, hous­ing, roads, schools and of course water.

Farm­ers in the Basin have counted on sus­tained water flows to nur­ture their crops. Two of Yel­low­stone County’s early major irri­ga­tion projects were devel­oped from these waters in the early nine­teen hun­dreds and were quickly fol­lowed by dozens of water projects. So far, all have been able to pull water from the river for their use, but the future is far from clear. Wide­spread agri­cul­tural uses are good for our econ­omy and fam­i­lies but are not benign to the Yel­low­stone River.

The river’s beau­ti­ful land­scapes attract new landown­ers who have not yet learned how to respect a free flow­ing river. Valu­able land washes down the river. To many new envi­ron­ments, islands and wildlife habi­tat do not seem like just com­pen­sa­tion when their land dis­ap­pears down the river in the grow­ing spring floods. The result is increas­ing demand to tame the great river into channels.

While the debate about global warm­ing res­onates across the coun­try, river users along the Yel­low­stone begin to see what sci­en­tists have pre­dicted. Early spring pre­cip­i­ta­tion com­ing as rain on top of the snow pack. Now ear­lier spring runoffs, larger floods and higher sum­mer tem­per­a­tures, exac­er­bated by low sum­mer stream flows, are major con­cerns. Alien species of plants and ani­mals move along the river cor­ri­dor crowd­ing out native species in a dis­as­trous explo­sion played out in slow motion, so sub­tle, yet so destruc­tive to nat­ural systems.

Today in spite of all the change, the Yel­low­stone River is amaz­ingly resilient. The future, how­ever, has very dark clouds on the hori­zon. No sin­gle user of the Yel­low­stone River wishes to harm this most impor­tant river so crit­i­cal to us.

There is a star­tling com­plex­ity of fed­eral and state agen­cies, Indian Tribes, county gov­ern­ments, con­ser­va­tion dis­tricts, cities and local agen­cies all of who have some respon­si­bil­ity for the Yel­low­stone River. Con­sider then irri­ga­tion dis­tricts, power plants, refiner­ies, rail­roads, recre­ation­ists, landown­ers and busi­nesses that have a long-term stake and effect on the health of the Yel­low­stone. There is no sin­gle respon­si­bil­ity for the con­ser­va­tion of the river’s eco­log­i­cal sys­tems and the sus­tain­abil­ity of all its uses. In that fact lays the real threat to the River. Work­ing together in coop­er­a­tion of all stake­hold­ers would seem essential.

Ener­gized by warm­ing moun­tain air of Wyoming and Mon­tana, snowflakes of all shapes trans­form into crys­tal rivulets of gen­tly flow­ing water. Rivulets turn into streams that unite to form a great river with all its power and pur­pose. It is thus that the early stages of coop­er­a­tion between cit­i­zens, orga­ni­za­tions and gov­ern­ment are form­ing to assure an endur­ing Yel­low­stone River. Dis­sim­i­lar stake­hold­ers have begun to form the rivulets of coop­er­a­tion and search for the com­mon ground that can unite to sus­tain the River. The list of coop­er­a­tors is grow­ing and includes recre­ation­ists, edu­ca­tors, agri­cul­tur­al­ists, gov­ern­ment and con­ser­va­tion organizations.

Good things are hap­pen­ing; a decade of research lead by con­ser­va­tion dis­tricts along the river is lead­ing to an under­stand­ing of the cumu­la­tive effects of human activ­i­ties, the Audubon Soci­ety has estab­lished their envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion cen­ter for stu­dents and adults, Rocky Moun­tain Col­lege has started a Yel­low­stone River research cen­ter, BikeNet is devel­op­ing trails, Pub­lic Land and Water Asso­ci­a­tion is improv­ing river access, Yel­low­stone River Parks Asso­ci­a­tion has devel­oped city parks and green ways, Our Mon­tana, with sup­port from the Cinnabar Foun­da­tion, has proven pub­lic own­er­ship of ripar­ian areas to pro­vide Billings the poten­tial of a sys­tem of green nat­ural parks.

Foun­da­tion con­cepts are begin­ning to emerge: “all who enjoy the ben­e­fits of the River are stake­hold­ers, stake­hold­ers must work coop­er­a­tively”, “agreed upon action will be based on infor­ma­tion, sci­ence and shared action.” River observers under­stand that the future seems to approach rapidly; there may be lit­tle time to linger if we are to sus­tain the ben­e­fits of this great river and that is the chal­lenge of cooperation.

A Legacy for Tomor­row

This enor­mous project, that of pro­tect­ing the Yel­low­stone River from overuse and abuse for the sake of future gen­er­a­tions, involves a star­tling com­plex­ity of fed­eral and state agen­cies, Indian Tribes, county gov­ern­ments, con­ser­va­tion dis­tricts, cities and local agen­cies, all of who have some respon­si­bil­ity for the Yel­low­stone River. It requires restraint and respect from irri­ga­tion dis­tricts, power plants, refiner­ies, rail­roads, recre­ation­ists, landown­ers and businesses.

The chal­lenges will chiefly be:

1) to find a way for stake­hold­ers to work coop­er­a­tively, and

2) cli­mate change issues such as ear­lier spring runoffs, larger floods and higher sum­mer tem­per­a­tures, exac­er­bated by low sum­mer stream flows. Alien species of plants and ani­mals that move along the river cor­ri­dor crowd­ing out native species are a seri­ous threat.

The legacy being cre­ated for future gen­er­a­tions is that coop­er­a­tion between cit­i­zens, orga­ni­za­tions and the gov­ern­ment is devel­op­ing to assure an endur­ing Yel­low­stone River. Dis­sim­i­lar stake­hold­ers have begun to coop­er­ate and search for the com­mon ground that can unite them to sus­tain the River. Foun­da­tion con­cepts are begin­ning to emerge: “all who enjoy the ben­e­fits of the River are stake­hold­ers, stake­hold­ers must work coop­er­a­tively”, “agreed upon action will be based on infor­ma­tion, sci­ence and shared action.”

Part­ners

The list of con­cerned groups is long and reflects the broad cross sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion depen­dent on the river. The group of orga­ni­za­tions closely affil­i­ated with Our Mon­tana on this work includes the following:

  • Audubon Con­ser­va­tion Edu­ca­tion Center
  • Beartooth Pad­dlers
  • BikeNet
  • Billings Pub­lic Works
  • Cinnabar Foundation/Conserve Montana
  • Lewis & Clark Trail Her­itage Foundation
  • Magic City Fly Fishers
  • Mon­tana Bureau of Land Management
  • Mon­tana Wilder­ness Association
  • North­ern Plains Resource Council
  • Plains Jus­tice
  • Pub­lic Land/Water Access Association
  • Rocky Moun­tain Yel­low­stone River Research Center
  • Sun­shine Sports
  • Yel­low­stone River Con­ser­va­tion Dis­trict Council