The last wild river

The Yellowstone River survived the era of dams, but can it survive riprap?

  • Yellowstone River in Montana

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Upper Yellowstone River in Mont.'s Paradise Valley

    Tom Murphy photo
  • New RV park near Montana's Paradise Valley

    Tom Murphy photo
  • Cartoon: Yellowstone River's gravestone

    John Potter
  • Alan S. Kesselheim paddling Yellowstone River with sons Eli and Sawyer


LIVINGSTON, Mont. - Right in the thick of the millennial hype, I asked myself what I most wanted to do in the new century. The first image that came to mind was paddling my 16-foot red canoe down the Yellowstone River near Gardiner, Mont. I would have liked nothing better, on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000, than to set my boat in the vigorous current of that great river and paddle into the next era - if the flow hadn't been the consistency of a snow cone, punctuated by 300-pound chunks of floating ice.

The Yellowstone is that sort of place. If you're a kayaker or canoeist, you want to dance down its curves.

If you're a landowner, you want to build your home close enough for a view down to the next bend, close enough to hear the chuckle of current through an open window.

If you're an angler, you want to saunter down alongside its eddies and pools, arcing flies out over the flow.

If you're a city planner, you plan a park on the riverbank. If you're a jet-boater, you'll be itching to slam full throttle through the waves above Columbus.

Like too many of the landscapes in the West, it is the Yellowstone's curse to be lovely and wild and exhilarating; to be evocative of so much we have already lost; to be another one of those places people most want to be.

As Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, put it, "The Yellowstone is one of the very few landscapes left that Lewis and Clark might actually recognize."

The Yellowstone is stubbornly hanging on to its untamed qualities. Much of it feels wild and free and natural and robust, but it is also besieged and depleted and sullied and diminished. A watershed on the cusp.

"The Yellowstone symbolizes what I see as the real spirit of Montanans," said Rob Hazelwood, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, "yet it's that very quality we're trying hard to control and tame."

When I paddle it - and I have paddled every one of the 600 miles between the Yellowstone Park boundary at Gardiner, Mont., and the confluence with the Missouri River just across the border into North Dakota - I am gripped in a schizophrenic embrace, hot and cold, anger and joy, rejuvenation and despair.

Coasting around one bend, there will be white pelicans on a gravel bar and a mule deer bounding up a cliff scarp; around the next, the oil and gas refineries of Laurel will stink up the place. On one stretch I could be with William Clark, cruising downriver in hollow cottonwood trees on the way back from the Pacific in 1806, seeing the country new. Around the next bend, it's another 6,000 square-foot summer mansion going up on the bank or a steel wall slammed into the channel to protect someone's Kentucky bluegrass sod.

Back in the last century, the Yellowstone dodged the fate of a major dam, a fate that befell every other significant river in the West. As a result, it remains unique - the only big Western river outside of Alaska that operates largely the way a river should - which is to say that it is unpredictable. It still builds and moves its islands, creates and abandons its channels, erodes its banks, regenerates its cottonwood groves. All things that dam-controlled rivers either don't do at all, or do in a severely handicapped way. The nearby Missouri River is a perfect example of a controlled river.

"I've traveled a lot," said Hazelwood, "and the Yellowstone is some of the best riparian habitat still left in the West."

A river on the run

Yet it also floods: The Yellowstone burst its banks during the summers of 1996 and 1997, when supposedly rare 100-year floods hit twice in a row.

Suddenly, the river everyone wanted to cozy up to was eroding its channel, acre by expensive acre, toppling entire groves of mature cottonwoods and taking them downstream as battering rams. The floods captured world-renowned and big-dollar spring-creek fisheries, took out bridges, drowned houses south of Livingston to the first-floor windowsills, turned pastureland into fields you could plant rice in, and gobbled up the occasional home. The river did all this, not just once, but twice, back to back.

Two years running, late-season storms built massive snowpacks in the mountains. Cool, wet weather persisted into early summer. Then, when the heat came on, meltwater roared into the drainage in an astonishing, prolonged rush. At the gauge in Livingston, floodwaters crested at more than 37,000 cubic-feet per second (cfs). Between May 23 and June 28, 1997, 82.4 billion cubic-feet of river whistled past the gauge, a tremendous slug of water by anyone's reckoning (HCN, 7/7/97: The West weathers unusually wet times).

The floods definitely got people's attention. Landowners along the watershed were scared silly by the power of water. Witnessing the abrupt erosive changes wrought by flooding, owners of vulnerable land felt the threat to their property on a visceral level. Given the siege mentality, to ask whether people should have built along the banks in the first place, and why building along the banks continues to go on unabated, was not a popular stance to take.

Montana's Park County offers a stunning example of landowner reaction to the flooding. The outburst of micromanagement measures taken along the river corridor, a phenomenon that environmental groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition started calling "riprap anarchy," was staggering. (Riprap is stone or concrete laid along a riverbank to prevent erosion.) In the 20 years between 1975 and 1995, the Army Corps of Engineers issued 38 permits for Yellowstone River projects in Park County. In the next three years, the corps approved 82 permits in that county alone.

Principal among them were a one-and-one-half-mile levee in the town of Livingston, at a cost of $500,000, to protect schools, a city park, and residential areas in the floodplain; and $800,000 worth of riprap, rock barbs, root wads, diking, bank stabilization, and channelization measures taken after the "96 flood to prevent the Yellowstone from capturing Armstrong Spring Creek, south of Livingston.

The "97 flood took out most of the spring creek fortifications in a matter of days. The hastily constructed Livingston levee was almost completely dismantled by the corps in 1999, largely because of complaints from local residents who like having access to the river.

According to Dennis Glick of the GYC, "the corps rarely objects to a permit. They said no to fewer than five permit requests, by our estimates.

"In some instances, landowners went ahead with projects without bothering with permits in the first place, or ignored the recommendations made by the corps," he added. "The corps doesn't, in reality, act either as an enforcement or overseeing agency. They act as a permitting agency."

Landowner reaction to the permitting system runs the gamut. Ursula Neese, who owns a remodeled, 100-year-old farmhouse on the riverbank south of Livingston, calls the permitting process "bogus." But just across the river, where Andrew Dana's family partnership has controlled a large section of riverfront property, including Nelson Spring Creek, for some 30 years, Dana said that the permitting ordeal they were put through by the corps was "one of the most stressful times of my life" (see story page 8).

To complicate matters, what one landowner does upstream usually affects property owners downstream. Laying riprap along banks, for example, hardens the river channel so current speeds up and hits the next corner with greater erosive power. The upshot is a kind of domino effect rippling down the watershed as neighbors react to what upstream landowners do. At this writing, more than 11 miles of Park County riverbank along the Yellowstone have been lined with riprap, not to mention dozens of jetties, barbs, weirs and levees that have also gone in.

It wasn't long after the flooding that a chorus of concern began to gather. Some people wondered whether there might be worse fates than a big dam; whether the Yellowstone was well along in the process of being nibbled to death. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition's Glick noted that "the Yellowstone may not have a dam across it, but in some places it looks like we're working to put one in all along it!'

One federal agency was alarmed: In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the corps' "bank stabilization projects could destroy cottonwood forests, deepen the streambed, threaten riparian vegetation and adversely impact fish and wildlife." In another letter, the federal wildlife agency warned that "the Yellowstone River is moving towards (becoming) an armored channel."

And why, wondered the GYC's Mike Clark, hadn't any lessons been learned from the major flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the early "90s? "How could the corps reconcile spending millions dismantling riverbank structures and relocating residents after recognizing the failure of their flood-control strategies along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers," he asked, "while simultaneously granting dozens of permits for the same kinds of projects along the Yellowstone? We can't afford to make the same mistakes we've made elsewhere."

Allan Steinle, program manager for the corps in Helena, Mont., says the corps "isn't charged with managing the river. We apply our regulations and guidelines, on a case-by-case basis, with the information available. We work hard to modify projects to comply with our requirements."

Steinle said it is true that the agency doesn't always get out to inspect project sites. "Given the funding constraints, we have to stratify our efforts. But when landowners ask the government for help," he added, "it's not realistic to ask a government agency to tell landowners that they can't protect their property."

A new approach

Park County residents, led by Livingston businessman John Bailey, convinced Gov. Mark Racicot, in November 1997, to convene an Upper Yellowstone River task force to look at the proliferation of bank-stabilization projects with a fresh eye. The governor appointed 12 voting members representing constituencies including ranchers, anglers, conservationists, and other stakeholders, while another eight nonvoting members speak on behalf of state and federal agencies involved in the Yellowstone River's watershed.

The task force was given one of those inherently problematic mandates - -to ensure that upper Yellowstone River integrity remains intact, while balancing the needs of our communities and landowners."

In a recent interview, Chairman Bailey said he was optimistic, given the progress achieved by the group in its first two years. "If you had told me that we'd already have $1.5 million in watershed studies under way and a $300,000 commitment from the state Legislature, I wouldn't have believed you."

The corps' Steinle agreed that "the task force has really helped focus attention and resources in a way that couldn't have been done earlier."

Far more important than the data the group is collecting, Bailey said, is the broad-spectrum, consensus-based approach. "I believe that the educational process we're going through is more important than any specific end result.

"When the next issue comes up, I plan on being here, and I'll know where to go for data," he added. "Then we can head off problems before they happen. That's one thing you can't measure - the damage that never gets done because we were able to avoid it."

Liz Galli-Noble, who was recently hired as task force coordinator, agreed that "science has to lead the way." She has faith that patience and open-mindedness will be rewarded by good long-term management results.

Not everyone is as sanguine.

Mark Albers, director of American Rivers' Montana field office in Great Falls, echoed the sentiments of the conservation community when he cautioned, "It remains to be seen if the task force has the will to make the hard decisions required to protect and restore their portion of the Yellowstone."

While conservation groups support the efforts of the task force, some are also suing. In May 1999, the Montana Council of Trout Unlimited, along with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and a bevy of other environmental groups, took the corps to court, frustrated with what they saw as an out-of-control river-management process.

"Things had already gone to hell," said Glick. "Our lawsuit was a last resort. Someone had to put the brakes on."

The suit claims that in awarding scores of permits, the corps ignored its duty to carry out "cumulative impact analyses required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and their implementing regulations." The suit also charges that "the corps' failure to adequately consider the cumulative impacts fatally undermines the corps' conclusions - that the projects' environmental impacts will be insignificant."

Among 20 pages of supporting evidence, the lawsuit cites warnings expressed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998, over the "piecemeal approach to addressing bank erosion" and the "cumulative adverse effects on the environment."

"First we need to put a moratorium on permits," said GYC lawyer Steve Mashuda. "Then we need a cumulative environmental impact statement to assess the entire drainage. Only then can we really consider our options. Our case is only the first step in addressing a very complex problem."

The lawsuit is now being considered by the U.S. District Court in Billings, with a decision expected sometime this spring.

The river's plight gained more visibility last year when American Rivers added the entire Yellowstone watershed to its list of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers. Mark Albers said American Rivers' campaign for the Yellowstone includes the ambitious hope of enrolling 50 percent of the river's meander zone in a conservation easement program by 2004 (see sidebar); aiding fish migration past diversion dams and irrigation intakes; and increasing citizen awareness of what the river requires to remain wild.

Meantime, even some of the people who are fully committed to the less confrontational, broad-spectrum posture taken by the task force are wary about the political will to take appropriate action.

Chairman Bailey bemoaned the decision of the city of Livingston to build a new public school smack in the river's floodplain, even after the floods. "It was common knowledge that the site is actually below the level of the river!" he said.

Duncan Patten, a riparian expert and technical consultant to the task force, explained that it's "people issues, not scientific data, that drives this process."

A case in point is a wildlife study that Patten wanted the task force to fund. "The consensus process shot that study down," he said.

At the Jan. 12 task force evening meeting in Livingston, the wildlife study was again brought up for discussion. Quickly, Jerry O'Hare, a second-generation landowner in Paradise Valley, whose property includes lucrative spring creek fisheries, derailed any hope for the study.

"I talked to other landowners in the valley," said O'Hare. "Not one of them was for it."

For the next hour, the task force and citizens in the audience discussed the wildlife issue, all the while knowing that O'Hare's resistance had already rendered the issue moot. Fear of biologists coming onto someone's property and uncovering an endangered species was repeatedly brought up as the bogeyman in the background.

At one point in the discussion, Bailey joked, with more candor than he perhaps intended, "Our biggest problem is making a recommendation - on anything!'

Around 10 o'clock, the task force moved on to wordsmithing the annual report, an excruciating process with a decided bent toward making language more general and less controversial.

I kept escaping the stultifying basement atmosphere by running mental snapshots of what the river feels like firsthand. Only a few blocks away, the river whispered through the cold night. I pictured the muscling power of current roaring through big standing waves in Gardiner; the eerie, boat-torquing upwellings at Box Car Rapid in Yankee Jim Canyon; the sheer yellow rock rising out of the flow below Columbus; the wide river feeling its way through herds of islands near Sidney.

It came to me that nowhere during the meeting had I heard the voice of that river. It was why we had all gathered on this chilly, January night, but I never once heard what the water needs to survive.

What I heard instead were the voices of landowners who spoke fervently of the great risk they faced by allowing a study of wildlife on their property, a risk, they said, with no corresponding reward.

No one suggested that the reward might be what we were all ostensibly here for in the first place - to reclaim and nourish some semblance of this river that in powerful and direct ways serves to sustain every one of us. No one said that the real risk was not that a biologist might trip over a hitherto unknown endangered species, but that we might not do what is needed on behalf of the Yellowstone.

Somewhere near midnight, the last bit of wording was massaged into paragraphs, and the meeting ended. Outside, standing by my car in the snow, I listened hard through the darkness for the river I knew was running nearby, but could only catch the late-night, midwinter sounds of a small Montana town.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A family encounters a conservation quandary

- Property owners call the shots

- An opportunity lost to politics

- A river divided

You can contact ...

  • Allan Steinle, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 406/441-1375;
  • Mike Gilbert, regional office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, 402/221-3057.
  • Liz Galli-Noble, Upper Yellowstone Task Force, 406/222-3701;
  • Dennis Glick, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, 406/586-1593.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Alan S. Kesselheim

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