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Protecting Montana Headwaters

Montana Headwaters Legacy Act would add 17 new Wild & Scenic Rivers.

Protecting Montana Headwaters

The  Montana Headwaters Legacy Act aims to protect 336 miles of iconic southwestern Montana trout streams, including part of the upper Madison River shown here. (Brian Grossenbacher photo)

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the August-September 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman. This federal legislation has since been introduced and is awaiting a hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sources tell Fly Fisherman that that hearing is not likely to occur this session, nor has it been added to any larger public lands bill. The bill could be re-introduced in the next Congress, if necessary.

No matter how hard I tried to focus on the snowy highway ahead, I couldn’t keep from glancing again and again in the rearview mirror. The little girl reflected in the back seat had long, dark pigtails and bangs cut straight across. Strapped into a toddler safety seat, she sang along to the radio, head cocked from a combination of chronic inquisitiveness and incommodious positioning years ago in utero, which had been uncomfortable for both of us.

I trained my eyes back on the road, and when I looked up at the rearview a moment later I had snapped out of my flashback to see that same child, Ella, now grown, in her first year of adulthood. She had lost the pigtails and gained a nose ring. A long, dark braid lay under a Galloup’s Slide Inn fly shop hat as her head, still slightly cocked, bobbed a bit with the beat from the car speakers. I marveled at how, in every stage of life, she seemed to know all the words to each song, as I blurted out pieces of partially correct lyrics every so often and awkwardly tapped my fingers on the steering wheel.

Keying in on the anxious energy I no doubt exuded during this sentimental journey, she leaned forward and put a hand on my shoulder, patronizing me with a grin, saying, “Hey mama, what would you do if I was moving across the country for college and not just across the state?” I rolled my eyes dramatically as if unaffected at the realization that this visit to the University of Montana Western admissions office would seal the deal on her college choice and subsequent nest desertion. “Oh, look, we’re here!” I said, grateful to change the subject as we pulled into the Galloup’s Slide Inn parking lot, with the Madison River snaking out back. Ella sat up taller, looking concerned. “Oh my gosh, is it dorky if I’m wearing Kelly Galloup’s hat when I meet him?”

“No,” I said, “He’ll love that.”

Five years ago, when Ella suddenly chose to quit fly fishing, I was careful not to let the boycott hurt my feelings. She matter-of-factly declared she didn’t want to be known as “that fly-fishing girl.”

“It’s your thing, mama, not mine,” she’d said. Although disheartened after having imagined us fishing together as she came of age, I did not push back. While she refused to pick up a rod in the following five years, she did pick up the oars. She recognized that although she chose not to fish, she still wanted to be on the river. So, she rowed my Adipose skiff on the mellow main stem Flathead, and rowed my StreamTech whitewater raft on the more dynamic stretches of the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River. She put her friends and family on more fish than we could count in those years, barking commands like, “set the hook” and “cast again” and “mend, mend, mend!” And since the Flathead system is home to three of Montana’s five waterways guarded by the highest form of river protection in the United States—the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968—she learned what it means for a river to be identified by its outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values.

Always watching, listening, and questioning, Ella asked me more than once why the rivers in our backyard got federal protection from development and exploitation, while so many other Montana rivers did not. I told her that other rivers are certainly deserving of the same safeguard, but only an act of Congress could make it happen. The responsibility of adding more waterways to the list belongs to members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.

On October 27, 2020, at a press conference on the banks of the Gallatin River, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) announced his introduction of a bill called the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, which would amend the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act to designate certain streams in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the Smith River system in the state of Montana as components of the Wild & Scenic Rivers System. Tester calls the bill a grassroots-led effort that came from the ground up. “I take my lead from the Montanans who live, work, and recreate on these rivers, and who formed the backbone of the coalition looking to protect them,” says Tester.

aerial view of Montana's Smith River; raft floating downstream beneath tall limestone cliffs
Under the proposed legislation, approximately 24 miles of Montana’s Smith River, from the confluence of Tenderfoot Creek downstream to the confluence of Deep Creek—and 21 miles of Tenderfoot Creek itself—would be designated as Wild & Scenic. (Brian Grossenbacher photo)

Fewer than one-half of one percent of our nation’s rivers (13,413 miles) have protection under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Montana went 42 years without adding to the list of waterways before President Trump signed bipartisan legislation designating south-central Montana’s East Rosebud Creek as Wild & Scenic in 2018. At that time, Montana river advocates strategized that, in order to prevent going so long between designations, multiple rivers should be considered at once.

The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act would add 17 waterways to the Wild & Scenic roster, prohibiting federal support for new dams or other activities that would hurt the rivers’ outstanding resource values, free-flowing condition, or water quality. Designation does not affect private property rights or existing water rights.

“Each of these rivers has unique qualities we need to preserve for future generations, and I will continue to work with local stakeholders to defend these Montana treasures,” said Tester. Among those listed are stretches of some of the state’s most iconic and pristine rivers, including 11 zones in the upper Yellowstone watershed like the Yellowstone, West Boulder, and Stillwater; five spots in the Missouri headwaters region like the Gallatin, upper Hyalite Creek, and the upper Madison, and two in the upper Missouri Watershed: Tenderfoot Creek and the Smith River.


These streams are home to important species including native cutthroat trout, provide drinking water to nearby municipalities, and supply irrigation water for local ranches. Plus, the recreational opportunities like fishing, rafting, camping, and wildlife viewing help fuel the 71,000 jobs and $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy in Montana.

Scott Bosse is the Northern Rockies director for American Rivers and says that more than a decade ago his organization helped gather a host of Montana residents, business owners, sportsmen and sportswomen, and conservationists to form Montanans for Healthy Rivers, a coalition set on identifying waterways for inclusion in possible Wild & Scenic legislation. “We’re in a race against time to save our last remaining wild rivers, and we can no longer afford to react to threats as they arrive,” says Bosse. For the past decade, Montanans for Healthy Rivers has conducted hundreds of meetings and secured written endorsements from more than 3,000 Montana residents and 1,000 Montana businesses who want to see the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act pass.

The urgency is compounded, Bosse says, by a visitation and population boom, and climate change. “The traditional threats are just being amplified,” he says. “And since it usually takes a decade to protect one Wild & Scenic River, putting multiple waterways together in one solid effort makes sense.”

Missoula-based fly-fishing guide KynsLee Scott says the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act is an opportunity for anglers all across the country to gain a deeper understanding of Wild & Scenic designation in their own areas.

She guides multi-day river camping trips on the famed Smith River near White Sulphur Springs. The Smith, as well as the adjoining Tenderfoot Creek, are listed as components of Tester’s proposed legislation. Scott says she put her first “Save the Smith’’ sticker on her cooler more than a decade ago when she started to learn more about the proposed Black Butte Copper Project along Sheep Creek, a headwater tributary to the Smith River. “The Smith is quite possibly the most famous river in Montana,” says Scott. “It’s part of an incredibly special ecosystem removed from roads and developments. It’s frozen in time and is such a rich place. The day we can’t protect the Smith—well, I guess that would be one of the saddest in our state’s history.”

Montana Senator Jon Tester smiling in a sport coat, in front of the Yellowstone River
Senator Jon Tester’s legislation would designate 18 miles of the Yellowstone River as Wild & Scenic. To move forward, it needs bipartisan support from Senator Steve Daines, and a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Senator Jon Tester)

Scott hosts a podcast sponsored by Montanans for Healthy Rivers called River Ramble—Guides Edition. Each week she interviews a different fly-fishing guide about one of the waterways named in the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act. The idea is not only to help the general public familiarize with the specific waters listed in the legislation, but also educate on the purpose of the Wild & Scenic law. “It’s great because people get to hear from guides who understand that Wild & Scenic has three classifications,” says Scott. “There’s wild, scenic, and recreational classifications. This is crucial to understand, because it keeps the areas open to the public and allows for economic prosperity.” Regardless of classification, the rule doesn’t give the federal government authority over private property, and it doesn’t prohibit use or development. Scott says people are sometimes surprised to learn, for example, that recreation, agricultural practices, residential development, and other uses may continue.

Not everyone is in favor of the landmark legislation. Those in opposition worry that protecting the water could jeopardize future economic growth of extractive industries, and would give the federal government too much control. But in early 2020, the University of Montana Voter Survey on Public Lands showed that nearly 80 percent of Montanans support the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act and designating new rivers as Wild & Scenic. Tester says he’s not surprised at the growing support he says he’s seen for the proposal, since so many Montanans contributed to its crafting. “At the end of the day,” says Tester, “I am hopeful that we can all work together to get this done.”

The bill was referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where it will get a hearing after its springtime reintroduction. Eventually it is likely to be added to a larger public lands bill that could be the largest Wild & Scenic Rivers package in history. Remarkable federal bipartisan river protection legislation is also being considered in New Mexico, California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, with some states’ proposed river miles dwarfing Montana’s.

Montanans for Healthy Rivers would like to see the state’s two other congressional delegates aid in the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act’s quick passage, which would mean cosponsorship by U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and the introduction of a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives by newly elected Rep. Matt Rosendale. In 2018, Daines and then Rep. Greg Gianforte (now Montana’s governor) supported East Rosebud Creek’s designation, but neither office returned our calls for comment on their colleague’s most recent attempt at Wild & Scenic expansion.

Tester says, “Protecting our streams and rivers for future generations isn’t a partisan issue, and with the help of conservation groups, fly-fishing guides, small businesses, and other stakeholders on the ground, I’m optimistic we can win the support we need in Congress.”

The college tour with my daughter offered the opportunity to introduce her to some of the rivers near her school listed in the new protection proposal; thus, our stop at Galloup’s Slide Inn along the Madison River. Kelly Galloup had just left the shop on a supply run, but directed us by text message to a wadable stretch behind his shop where good-sized brown trout were eating adult midges on the surface.

We trudged a short distance through knee-deep snow from the fly shop to the river. Large snowflakes fell, making the #20 Galloup’s Goober Midge difficult to pinpoint. But when Ella saw a brown trout rise just inside a seam along a large bankside rock, she didn’t hesitate. While she couldn’t see the fly, she could see the rise, so she cast just slightly upriver from where she’d seen the rings rippling away from the surface break, and let the fly drift into the zone.

The fish took down the bug on the first pass. When Ella set the hook, her audience, including me, my partner Ebon, and our friend, Slide Inn manager Jeremy came unglued, cheering. I jumped up and down in the snow and scrambled for a net I thought we’d brought but actually forgot at home, 349 miles away. This was Ella’s first time fishing the Madison, and her first brown trout. After a hasty photo, she released the fish in the shallow eddy, enjoying the frigid splash from the tail as it kicked off, back toward the shelter rock.

It struck me that this important memory was being made in the exact place where, in 2009, a hydropower developer proposed a project at the outlet of Quake Lake that would have partially dewatered more than half a mile of the Madison River between Quake Lake and Reynolds Pass. This stretch of the Madison, which for Ella now upheld its renowned reputation for housing impressive brown and rainbow trout, has been found eligible for Wild & Scenic designation due to its outstanding scenic, recreational, and fisheries values. Passage of the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act would ensure that river-altering projects like dams will no longer be considered on the upper Madison.

Hilary Hutcheson squatting in river with her daughter, daughter holding a brown trout
A Wild & Scenic designation for rivers like the Madison would prevent hydropower projects and other major developments that would detract from the rivers’ natural, cultural, and recreational values. (Ebon Robinson photo)

The next day, after solidifying her paperwork in the college admissions office, Ella was invited to sit in on an environmental policy class and meet with heads of the Environmental Sustainability and the English departments. She said goodbye to us in the foyer of the science building, vowing to meet up at the end of the day for a full campus tour. As she walked down the hallway away from us, I realized that I wouldn’t see her in my rearview mirror much anymore. A natural leader, she likely wouldn’t grace many rearviews at all.

I thought about how the most important word in the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act is “legacy.” To me, that means an obligation to my children to help safeguard the natural world for their own recreational or occupational opportunities. We are the legacy of the leaders who put our country’s strongest river protections into play back in the 1950s, driven by threats to my home water, the Middle Fork of the Flathead.

Our children will reap what we sow today. I don’t view my children as my legacy in fly fishing, but if they are set up to win, they’ll carry forward the heritage of environmental stewardship that is the soul of the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act.

Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she continues to guide the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her daughters Ella and Delaney, her partner Ebon, and their Labrador Jolene. Her last story in Fly Fisherman was “Managing Menhaden” in the April-May 2021 issue.

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