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

HELENA, Mont. - Most agree that the greatest long-term threat to the integrity of the Yellowstone River is the unregulated development of private property along the banks.

"Once a house is built in the floodplain, there is zero tolerance for bank erosion," said Rob Hazelwood, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We have to remember," said Hazelwood, "that two-thirds of Montana is private property. Those people have to be considered in the management scheme, and they need to be offered a whole range of options for how to live there and still let the river be a river."

Hazelwood recommends developing a "myriad of options," ranging from zoning restrictions in areas under heavy development pressures, to conservation easements and riparian setbacks.

National and state groups are looking at ways to preserve the floodplain without trampling on landowners' property rights. American Rivers, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other conservation groups are aggressively pursuing easements as a means to protect floodplain property and free the river to erode naturally. Property owners might be enticed with tax breaks and cash payments to enroll land in a variety of programs.

American Rivers is studying the possibility of creating a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) throughout the Yellowstone Basin, similar to efforts used successfully in other parts of the country, notably the Chesapeake Bay region. CREP is an extension of the Farmland Reserve program instituted by Congress as part of the 1996 Farm Bill.

For now, much of the watercourse remains unregulated. New houses and subdivisions continue to move onto the floodplain, despite recent memories of major flooding, and the lessons learned along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, when record-breaking floods overwhelmed levees and surged over huge tracts of "protected" lowlands a decade ago.

"Each year we lose," warned Hazelwood, "is time the river can't afford."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Alan S. Kesselheim