Jim Hagenbarth has spent his life ranching along the banks of the Big Hole River in southwestern Montana, on land his family has worked for more than a century. The area remains sparsely populated and mostly agricultural, much as it was when Hagenbarth used to get in trouble as a kid for riding calves behind the barn. But these days it’s not drought, disease or the high price of feed that threaten the ranch. It’s luxury homes.
“Real estate people come in and build close
to the water and sell for high prices,” he says.
“They’re interested in the quick buck, not the
long-term sustainability of the area.”
fears that both the health of the ecosystem and the value of his
property will plummet if houses crowd the riverbanks. So a few
years ago he joined like-minded locals in a successful push for
streamside setbacks — rules that keep development at a
distance from waterways — along the Big Hole River.
More urbanized areas in the West have long had streamside setbacks
on the books, but Montana — never especially keen on
regulation — has been slow to catch on. Now the Western half
of the state is booming: Between 2000 and 2006, the populations of
Flathead and Ravalli Counties each grew by more than 12 percent and
Gallatin’s population increased by nearly 20 percent. The
growth has left besieged counties scrambling to protect their
waterways, with each local government devising its own set of
rules. But — since rivers tend to cross political boundaries
— some question whether this scattershot approach will truly
protect Montana’s waterways.
have twice pushed to get a statewide law passed that would create
fixed setbacks for every river in Montana, once in 2005 and again
in 2007. Both measures died, largely due to opposition from
landowners and real estate agents. In an effort to beat the state
Legislature to the punch, at least five western Montana counties
are now looking at adopting or expanding streamside setbacks. About
10 others have recently adopted some form of setback.
Despite Montana’s decidedly libertarian leanings, these plans
seek larger setbacks than most adopted in the rest of the West. In
Oregon, for instance, streamside setbacks rarely exceed 100 feet.
But in Montana’s Lewis and Clark County, subdivision
regulations call for a setback of 250 feet for some rivers, and
county proposals from Flathead to Ravalli recommend setback
distances of around 200 feet.
Streamside setbacks have a
number of benefits, depending on their design. Because native
plants can help preserve water quality and wildlife habitat along
riverbanks, Ravalli County’s proposals forbid their removal.
Due to Choteau County’s whopping three-mile setback on parts
of the Missouri, floaters see only wilderness as they bob down the
river. Setbacks can protect homes from the risk of flooding and,
proponents say, increase property values. Counties also stand to
profit. Tourism is quickly becoming Montana’s biggest
industry, bringing in nearly $3 billion a year, largely through
outdoor pursuits like hunting and fly-fishing.
“What’s happened in the rural parts of the state is
that there’s more understanding of the economic value of
setbacks because of our tourism industry,” says Andy Epple,
Bozeman’s planning director. “Out-of-state fly-fishers
and in-state floaters pump a lot of money into local
But the wide variety in the proposed
county setback rules has some worried that the state’s rivers
will fall victim to a patchwork of contradictory regulations.
“By simply leaving it up to the counties,
it’s hard to protect the entire river,” says Mark
Aagenes, conservation director for Montana Trout Unlimited.
“We have counties where a river will flow through that county
for 100 yards. Or a single river will pass through six
Even if a county has strict rules
governing building along streams, for example, its waterways can
still suffer increased erosion, sedimentation and habitat damage
simply because they lie downstream from a county that lets people
build closer to the water. People who build directly streamside
often pile rock along the edge of the streambed to prevent erosion
and protect their homes. The practice speeds up the water, which,
in turn, increases erosion downstream.
The situation is
no better on land. Some counties forbid the removal of native
plants, but others, like Park and much of Gallatin, allow
homeowners to plant lawns right to the river’s edge. This
results in a patchy wildlife corridor that can leave animals
stranded between habitats.
Given the failure of past
efforts to standardize state setbacks, one solution to the quandary
may lie with the efforts of rancher Hagenbarth and others to
protect the Big Hole River. In 2005, citizens in the four counties
that border the 160-mile river hammered out nearly identical
regulations, calling for a minimum setback of 150 feet through the
entire watershed. That’s something no individual Montana
county has ever accomplished. But the lessons of the Big Hole may
be hard to apply to the rest of Montana. Only 58,000 people inhabit
those four counties — about as many live in metropolitan
Missoula — making consensus a comparatively simple matter.
Still, whether by state, county or watershed, the push
for streamside setback regulations in Montana is likely to become
“There has to be a threshold where
you step back and say we better do something about this,”
says Janet Ellis, program director at Montana Audubon.
“We’re getting to the point where people want a vision
for the future.”
The author is an intern
for High Country News.