Diverse Interests Unite to Protect the Yellowstone River
The 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.”
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
- 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