New Wild and Scenic Rivers Bill Introduced for Montana


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Forget Kevin Costner and his new watch-me-cowboy “Yellowstone” series. There’s bigger news for Montana: the state might soon be getting more Wild & Scenic rivers.

Montana Senator Jon Tester recently announced the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, marking a major milestone in the ongoing journey towards designating many of the state’s most renowned waterways as Wild and Scenic.

Montana AW
Montana might soon be home to more Wild & Scenic rivers.
Photo courtesy American Whitewater

The Senator’s office noted that this legislation would be the “most significant Wild and Scenic River designation in the state in nearly 45 years.”

The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act (MHLA) will protect 336 miles on 17 rivers and streams in the Greater Yellowstone and Upper Missouri Headwaters geographies as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The compilation includes a tried and true sampling of the essential Montana paddling experience, containing classic sections of the Yellowstone, Madison, Gallatin, Stillwater, and Boulder, all stacked between the ultra-scenic multi-day section of the Smith and an assortment of rugged and remote wilderness runs on their tributaries (visit

“We would like to thank Senator Tester for stepping out front and introducing this legislation,”says American Whitewater’s Jim Hepburn. His visceral understanding of the importance of protecting our wild waterways lines up with the voices of the vast majority of Montanans who agree that these rivers are deserving of Wild and Scenic designation.”

The MHLA is the result of a decade’s worth of work by American Whitewater and partners in the Montanans for Healthy Rivers coalition. This grassroots led effort, built around community facilitation and education, aims to secure the future of the state’s waterways through made-in-Montana measures. The coalition has received the support and endorsements of thousands of individuals, business owners, government officials, trade organizations, and representatives from industry and agriculture.

According to the 2020 Public Lands Survey conducted by the University of Montana, 79% of Montanan’s support the MHLA. This is a noteworthy display of how issues surrounding public lands and waters transect socio-economic and political boundaries in a very polarized climate.

Bozeman resident and Olympic paddler Chris Ennis stated this sentiment in an August 2020 letter-to-the-editor in the “Bozeman Daily Chronicle.” “Wild and scenic is the highest level of protection for our nation’s waterways and a critical designation. As our state’s population increases so will the strain on our rivers. Wild and Scenic protects these streams like a snapshot in time, as they exist today, they must exist in perpetuity without fear of new dams or additional degradation. My daughter will have the opportunity to float, fish and enjoy our rivers for her lifetime and her children’s children’s lifetimes. In this chaotic year, the certainty provided by Wild and Scenic protection is ever more valuable.”

Other W&S Initiatives in Montana

In 2018, Montanans for Healthy Rivers saw a major success with the passage of the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic River Act with bipartisan support. This was the first designation in the state in 42 years, which bumped up the state’s running tally of protected miles to 388 on five river segments, or about 0.2% of the river miles in Montana. For regional context it is worth noting that Idaho has 22 Wild and Scenic Rivers covering 891 river miles, Wyoming has 14 Wild and Scenic Rivers covering 434 river miles, and Oregon has 68 Wild and Scenic Rivers covering 1,917 river miles. The designation of East Rosebud was a widely celebrated win for local paddlers, residents, and visitors alike, and a keystone moment in providing the path forward to move larger Wild and Scenic bills in Montana similar to those American Whitewater has been working on in other western states, i.e. Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and Utah.

Mike Garcia, a staple of the local whitewater community, and owner of Northern Lights – Rivers, Lakes, and Oceans, summed up the importance of the region in an October 2019 guest column in the Billings Gazette. “This is not a sacrifice. It’s a gift to ourselves and future generations. I think of how lucky we are in Montana to have these incredible waterways. When it comes to recreational opportunities, Montana’s Rivers offer an unparalleled spectrum of possibilities. From fishing to hunting to floating, Montana has all the choices you could ask for. Our free-flowing Yellowstone and its incredible tributaries are true jewels. The forks of the Boulder, Stillwater and Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone are as clear and pristine waters as you can find in America. East Rosebud Creek, our latest entry into the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, also feeds our country’s greatest free flowing river, the Yellowstone.”

As the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act takes this exciting leap towards what is sure to be a sinuous tour through Congress, American Whitewater and Montanans for Healthy Rivers are already looking ahead and have prepared another Montana-made package of rivers and streams that will follow in turn after the MHLA. The Crown of the Continent legislative proposal would protect another 20 streams and approximately 200 miles of river in and around its namesake region under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The proposal includes iconic tributaries of the Flathead and Clark Fork River systems, and is supported by an equally broad cross section of Western Montanans. It is an exhilarating time for anyone that cares about our watersheds and the benefits they provide to us all.

“We cannot express how appreciative and delighted we are to see the result of so many people’s hard work and dedication come to fruition with the introduction of the MHLA,” says Hepburn. “We’re on the brink of securing a significant portion of Montana’s whitewater heritage and guaranteeing the future of a substantial sum of rivers and streams that will continue to inspire generations of paddlers to come. We will be continuing to work with the rest of the Montana delegation and representatives from other states in both chambers of congress in finding those who will usher it towards passage.”

AW asks paddlers to join them in thanking the Senator and his staff by calling the Senator’s office at 202-224-2644 or sending him a message through his website at:

— Story courtesy Jim Hepburn/AW



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