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