A family encounters a conservation quandary

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Andrew Dana considers himself, and the rest of the family partnership which manages a large landholding south of Livingston, to be "dedicated conservationists." In 1982, his parents put much of their riverbank property into a conservation easement to protect it from future development and subdivision. Dana sees himself as being "sympathetic and active" on behalf of the environment.

In 1989, his family was honored as Landowners of the Year by Trout Unlimited, and they have received other, similar recognition as exemplary stewards.

He remembers earlier flooding in the "70s, before the era of permitting, when his family was encouraged to "riprap the hell out of the banks." Sections of their riverbank property are lined with riprap several decades old, along with a dike that goes back 50 years. "People who talk about the natural state of the Yellowstone ignore the long history of human manipulation that exists along the river."

When "the river came unglued" during the recent flood years, said Dana, "we came within hours of losing Nelson Spring Creek." After that, engineers hired by the family advised them that even moderate flooding would wipe out the spring creek, which provides valuable trout spawning habitat, critical irrigation water, and important wildlife habitat.

With what he considered to be a carefully thought-out design in hand, Dana initiated the permitting process with the Army Corps of Engineers. The sequence that followed, he said, was "like a bad dream." For months, the corps wouldn't respond, or dragged the process out, or kept asking for more information, or blatantly delayed and ignored the application.

Dana suggested that after the initial spate of permits during the floods, and the ensuing criticism of the corps, it became much more difficult to get anywhere with permits. "If there wasn't a formally stated moratorium, there certainly seemed to be an informal one."

When Dana couldn't get a permit after months of effort, he resorted to a fallback compromise, which amounted to augmenting and adding to the existing riprap along the banks. "It was not the best solution," reported Dana, "but it was what we were left with."

Even that project required some "serious arm-twisting, along with enlisting the support of a congressional delegation" before a permit was finally granted.

Dana argues that most landowners along the river value the landscape. "It's why they live here," he said. But he warned that there is a "substantial level of landowner fatigue building. A lot of the burden is falling on property owners. The demands are pretty extreme. It's certainly not business as it used to be."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Alan S. Kesselheim