The grand plan to save the Yellowstone River

Can one man’s pie-in-the-sky idea save one of the West’s most iconic and underloved rivers?

On a rose-tinted summer evening near Billings, Montana, a football-shaped dory drifts down the Yellowstone River, its flat bottom skimming wakeless over the roiling surface. Mike Penfold, a former Bureau of Land Management state director, mans the oars with the vigor of an Olympic rower. Dale Anderson, a bearded ex-teacher, perches in the bucket seat. The river tightens into a narrow canyon, hemmed by sandstone cliffs that glow in the fading light. Two hundred and nine years earlier, Captain William Clark’s Corps of Discovery drifted past this very spot during its homeward trek from the Pacific.

“You wonder what was going on in Clark’s brain when he saw that,” Penfold, 78, says, nodding at the radiant cliffs. A cowboy hat shades his broad, florid face, and his T-shirt bears the slogan #KeepItPublic. “Today, the Yellowstone seems quiet and easy,” he adds, pirouetting the dory away from a groping log. “But there are times when this river is damn-well dangerous.”


Farther downstream, the Yellowstone’s mood swings are scrawled across the landscape. Tangled root wads burst from naked clay banks, and gravel bars jut into the current. The wheat and beet farmers whose properties abut the river don’t appreciate its capriciousness; they’ve piled the banks with concrete blocks, warped nests of rebar and rusted-out pickup trucks to thwart erosion. But floods and ice jams regularly tear apart the riprap and send junk whirling downriver. Every year, volunteers extract some 7,000 pounds of detritus. Anderson, who swears he once saw an ex-wife’s Buick in the rubble, watches the riprap slide by, arms folded. “Man, that’s ugly,” he mutters.

Penfold –– “the dean of the Yellowstone,” a former colleague calls him –– also grumbles about the trash. Much of the meddling, he surmises, was conducted without a permit. In central Montana, environmental enforcement can be lax, and a full 84 percent of the Yellowstone’s surroundings are privately owned, substantially more than the state as a whole. But Penfold, a career federal servant who worships Montana’s famously progressive stream-access laws, believes the Yellowstone’s corridor is also home to thousands of acres of heretofore unrecognized public land, in the form of unclaimed islands and banks. Identifying the rightful public ownership of these parcels is central to his longstanding dream: the creation of the Montana Recreation Waterway, aquatic cousin to the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails, a river trail running most of the 670-mile course of the Yellowstone.

He believes that to experience a river is to love it, and that to love it is to fight for its protection. The Yellowstone — its waters overdrawn by irrigators, polluted by oil spills, constrained by riprap — could use some love. “What would you need to make a river trail happen?” Penfold asks as we cruise through the canyon. “You need places to camp. You need places to pull out. You need public land.”


Mike Penfold, a former Bureau of Land Management state director, believes the Yellowstone’s corridor is home to thousands of acres of heretofore unrecognized public land.
Erik Petersen

The Yellowstone is a curious river, at once iconic and neglected — neither contaminated like the Duwamish, nor altered beyond recognition like the Colorado, nor beloved by rafters like the Salmon. Though its headwaters rise just outside America’s first national park, it’s a utilitarian waterway, whose flows nourish sugar beets, wheat and alfalfa. Its upper reaches in the Paradise Valley are stalked by trout and well-heeled fly fishermen; by the time it reaches its confluence with the Missouri, it’s inhabited by blue-collar fish like sauger and bass, and trafficked by the jet boats of Bakken oil workers. It is the blue thread that ties Montana’s mountainous west to its agricultural east, its grizzly bear meadows to its beet fields.

Much recent Yellowstone media coverage has focused on two catastrophic oil pipeline ruptures, in 2011 and 2015, which together hemorrhaged over 100,000 gallons. But the spills were merely the latest episodes in a history of maltreatment. Agricultural withdrawals have reduced the river’s flows, riprap stifles the buildup of floodplains and other hydraulic processes, and runoff from farms and cities degrades water quality. Invasive plants, particularly Russian olive, choke the banks. While the Yellowstone is technically the country’s longest free-flowing river, its irrigation diversions impede fish, especially the endangered pallid sturgeon.

Decades of abuse came to a head after 1996, when a hundred-year flood tore through the basin, devouring crops, bridges and houses. Landowners like Jerry O’Hair, a ruddy-cheeked rancher and farmer, vowed to protect themselves against future torrents. O’Hair spent thousands of dollars armoring his section of the river and restoring a trout stream on his land. “We must’ve bought all the chicken wire in western Montana,” he recalls. The next year, yet another hundred-year flood undid his work. “These giant root wads I’d put in just went bobbing away like corks.”

Riprap had almost certainly exacerbated the floods by converting sections of the river into giant sluices. Yet many farmers believed the solution was still more riprap. The number of armoring permits granted by the Army Corps doubled. Environmental groups sued, insisting that the agency evaluate the cumulative impacts of all its permits. A judge sided with the environmentalists, but by then, says Susan Gilbertz, a cultural geographer at Montana State University Billings, “Sections of this river were screwed up about as badly as they could get.”

Riprap made of concrete blocks, warped nests of rebar and rusted-out pickup trucks lines the riverbank in places, but floods and ice jams can send it floating downriver.
Erik Petersen

A detail of the shoreline of the Yellowstone River, where anything goes.
Erik Petersen

Penfold followed the armoring controversy with interest. He’d served as Montana’s BLM director from 1980 to 1985, administering the agency’s coal-leasing program. Later, he worked as its national assistant director for land and renewable resources under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But his formative years came in the 1970s, when Penfold, a Colorado native, moved with his wife and four daughters to Roanoke, Virginia, to work for the U.S. Forest Service. More than 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail traversed his hardscrabble corner of the state, and he noticed that towns closer to the trail seemed cleaner and wealthier. Hikers served as walking shots of economic adrenaline, injecting tourist dollars into Virginia’s hills. The local trail club watchdogged the Forest Service, lambasting it when it planned clear-cuts near the path. Penfold joined the club on hikes and incorporated its concerns into forest planning. “The Forest Service needed to be dragged up by the scruff of the neck,” he recalls.

Though Penfold retired to Billings in 1995, leisure didn’t suit him, and he hurled himself into public land conservation and access issues. In 2007, for instance, he organized a coalition of conservationists, ATVers and horsemen in an attempt to devise travel-management plans in the Pryor Mountains, a remote crease of peaks, canyons and mesas near the Wyoming border. “Everyone was pissed,” recalls Dale Anderson, who was involved in the negotiations. “Mike was one of the cooler heads I’ve been around.”

Around the same time, the Public Land/Water Access Association was winning its own legal battle, for recreational river access at a disputed Yellowstone crossing called Bundy Bridge (no relation to the notorious Nevadan). Although a local rancher claimed the land, the group used historical records to prove public ownership; today, the bridge hosts a popular fishing access site. That success got Penfold wondering: Just how much unrecognized public land lined the Yellowstone? After all, the river was constantly re-contouring itself, creating and annihilating islands and bars. By law, islands that formed prior to Montana’s statehood in 1889 are federal land, while islands that sprang up later belong to the state — even if they eventually attach to the bank. Some of those erstwhile islands, Penfold believed, had been appropriated by landowners, or ignored altogether. He wanted to reclaim them for the people.

In 2009, Penfold, now volunteering for a group called Our Montana, hired a fluvial geomorphologist to study 15 miles of the river’s historic twists and turns. He also pored over tax records and folios of old aerial photos, identifying stretches of bank that may have originated as islands. In the end, he identified 10 separate tracts of unrecognized public land along the Yellowstone between Billings and nearby Laurel. If a single 15-mile section enfolded that much land, who knew how many public parcels lined the river’s course?

Penfold submitted his report to the state in 2010. Then he waited. And waited. The state made polite noises about evaluating the issue, but the process moved slowly. “The response was always, ‘We don’t have time,’ ” Penfold says. “It was disappointing.”

Finally, in 2014, his work bore fruit. Among Penfold’s islands was a piece of land dubbed Clarks Crossing, a cobble-strewn stretch of bank where William Clark ordered Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor to lead two dozen horses across the Yellowstone. Thieves soon nabbed the animals, but the sergeant, undaunted, stretched buffalo hides over wooden frames to create makeshift canoes, paddling downriver to deliver the bad news to Clark two weeks later. Inglorious though the episode may have been, the historical connection helped spur Montana to officially recognize the island. The state later leased the 115-acre Clarks Crossing, without the apostrophe, to the city of Billings for use as a public park.

Still, the floodgates of public-land designation won’t open anytime soon. “(Riparian ownership) analyses are quite costly in both staff time and contracted resources,” Monte Mason, minerals management bureau chief for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told me via email. Penfold’s work, Mason wrote, “is useful to help refine a list of possibilities,” and has led the agency to engage in “a broad review of landforms in the central-eastern stretch of the Yellowstone River.” But Penfold’s reports, he added, “do not provide the level of expert analysis” necessary to prove title. Wrote Mason: “We have cautioned Mr. Penfold regarding making public assertions of state ownership and access to landforms where legal title has not been adjudicated.”


The Yellowstone River rounds a bend near Billings, Montana, flowing around an island owned by the city of Billings and the Department of Natural Resources. It’s ideal for part of the island park trail system Mike Penfold is proposing.
Erik Petersen

The Yellowstone River is constantly re-contouring itself, creating and annihilating islands and sandbars.
Erik Petersen

Three days after our dory ride, Penfold and I embark in a green battleship of a canoe on a 19-mile float below Intake Diversion Dam, a line of boulders that shunts irrigation water into nearby fields and disrupts migratory sturgeon. We’re joined by a ragtag armada drawn from Penfold’s bottomless pool of friends and friends’ friends, from retired wheat farmers to plant pathologists to a small-town mayor who doubles as his village’s minister and triples as the owner of its liquor store.

Among the paddlers is Doug Smith, an immense, gray-braided member of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, a citizen council that helps steer the state park system. Soon after joining the board, he lobbied for the creation of three new parks — including a 40-mile stretch of the Yellowstone that would “get your foot in the door for a whole river park,” he tells me when we beach our canoes for lunch. Though Smith and Penfold had only met this morning, they’d independently concocted similar visions. When Smith presented his river park to the board, however, it was dead on arrival. “The park system is way underfunded, and there’s a huge backlog of deferred maintenance,” he says. “I don’t get much traction with these ideas.”

Indeed, Montana’s state parks are fiscally ailing. Between 2009 and 2013, revenue from hunting and fishing licenses declined by 8 percent, forcing the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to cut staff and close laboratories. In 2014, Montana’s budget for its 55 public parks was $7.5 million,  paltry compared to nearby states like Idaho, which had a $16 million budget for just 30 parks. Montana scarcely has enough money to manage its existing parks, let alone a sprawling, logistically complex river with myriad access points.

If the state can’t come through, though, the feds could. The National Recreation Trails program, administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, includes numerous water trails, among them a network of 55 campsites in Washington’s Puget Sound. But in eastern Montana, where anti-government fever runs high, a federal river trail surely would incite resentment.

“To many people, any attempt to raise the profile of this river seems to come from on high and will involve more regulations,” Susan Gilbertz cautions. In 2014, Interior dissolved its two-year-old National Blueways System, an initiative designed to recognize aquatic conservation efforts, after some landowners and Republican congressmen expressed largely unfounded fears that it would lead to land seizures.

Skeptical landowners may take comfort in the fact that, if history is any guide, the Montana Recreation Waterway would serve as a state-long stimulus package. The Appalachian Trail, the legendary path that first inspired Penfold, generates nearly $30 million annually for local communities. Even small trails, like the 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, are worth millions. And rivers are liquid assets, in every sense: A 2005 study, for instance, found that fishing and boating on the Upper Snake creates $46 million annually. “We’ve got 3.5 million people coming by our door every year on their way to Yellowstone Park,” Penfold says as our canoe scrapes a shallow bar. “The potential here is absolutely immense.”

Moreover, conservation is already coming. In 2015, the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, the organization that formed in the wake of the mid-’90s floods, released a long-awaited draft of its Cumulative Effects Analysis, a hefty document that chronicles the Yellowstone’s plight and offers an array of recommendations for ameliorating damage. The suggestions include removing blockages that cut off side channels, taking out old riprap and berms, and compensating farmers who let their land sink back into the river.

“Many of the biggest changes to the river’s morphology are also subtle — we have to address things that are not obvious to the eye,” says Don Youngbauer, the council’s chairman. Penfold’s project, Youngbauer adds, could nudge restoration along by growing the river’s constituency. “I’d love to see that. You can’t protect what you can’t touch.”

Around 10 miles below the dam, the river widens and slows, and civilization disappears behind a wall of cottonwoods. The other canoes slip around a bend, leaving our boat alone with a small group of mergansers, the females’ rust-colored crests ruffled by the wind. We sit in silence, listening to the faint hiss of silty water sliding against the hull. For the first time since our voyage began, it’s possible to imagine the river as Clark might have experienced it. The channel guides us along the right flank of a massive island, and Penfold adds it to his mental map as we drift past. “What a nice piece of land,” he says, like a jeweler admiring a 12-carat diamond.

The Montana Recreation Waterway is, to be sure, a pie-in-the-sky scheme. It faces resistant landowners, cash-strapped agencies and uncertain land tenure. (Because recreational river boating is prohibited within Yellowstone National Park’s waters, the trail would have to begin in Gardiner, Montana, rather than at the headwaters.) Still, Penfold is making incremental progress. He’s recruited students and professors at Rocky Mountain College to help map more islands, launched a new website touting Yellowstone conservation, and gradually filled his Rolodex with supporters. Yet even the designation of humble Clarks Crossing, a single link in a 670-mile-long chain, took years of work.

No one understands the sluggish pace of bureaucracy better than a former BLM director, and Penfold realizes that he may not live to see his plan to fruition. Still, he also knows that most great ideas in the annals of public lands protection began as flights of fancy. As we cruise downriver, I wonder aloud who would be foolhardy enough to travel his hypothetical river trail, braving diversion dams and loose logs and irate farmers along the way. Penfold, crouched in the canoe’s rear, flashes a mischievous grin. “It’s a river that could be very challenging to a lot of people,” he says, dipping a paddle. “You need someone with a little adventure in their spirit.”

Correspondent Ben Goldfarb writes from New Haven, Connecticut.