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Regulating the river

  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.”

Hagenbarth 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.

Conservation groups 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 economies.”

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 counties.”

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 even stronger.

“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.