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Wild and Scenic Montana! – East Rosebud Creek Newly Designated

What Makes a River “Wild and Scenic” and Why East Rosebud Creek in Montana Deserves The Designation by Kevin Colburn, the National Stewardship Director of American Whitewater

Photos and story by Kevin Coburn.

We call it bear spray boating, because here’s the secret: almost all the best packrafting in Montana is in grizzly bear habitat. The rivers still stalked by the big bears are enticingly remote, gin clear, often drop-pool, and carve their way through a diverse array of colorful bedrock. These unique wild rivers, flowing through vast public lands, offer packrafters a lifetime of adventures. And yet, many lack adequate protection and routinely catch the eye of dam builders and mining corporations.

I’ve spent most of my career with the non-profit American Whitewater restoring flows to rivers badly damaged by dams. I’ve come to know – and feel – how dams break and silence rivers. So about a decade ago some colleagues and I decided to foster a movement to protect some of the last, best rivers in Montana. We opted to use the gold standard: the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which prohibits dams and was passed 50 years ago this October. We aimed to catalog the state’s finest Wild and Scenic candidates and seek interim protections from the Forest Service, and permanent protection from Congress.

There was just one problem: while I had kayaked lots of great streams and could find images online of others, many were complete unknowns. We could not advocate for rivers we did not know, for rivers that had no identity that we could reveal through data, stories, images, and film. Many streams were too remote for me to lug my kayak into, so with the support of Alpacka Raft, I started packrafting and embarked on an eight-year odyssey to document these streams on my weekends and turn the evidence into conservation outcomes during the week. It’s been a wild ride, and has led to some of the best adventures of my life.

Montana has approximately 169,829 miles of river, of which 388 miles are designated Wild and Scenic. Because the author has not paddled East Rosebud Creek, yet, he’s shared a variety of photos from rivers he’s explored around the United States for this blog post, including this one of Montana’s North Fork of the Blackfoot River. Photo by Kevin Coburn.

I’ve worked closely with colleagues at American Rivers, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Pacific Rivers Council and other great organizations over the years on this effort under the banner of Montanans for Healthy Rivers. Together we’ve earned endorsement for new Wild and Scenic protections for around 50 rivers from hundreds of businesses, thousands of individuals, and most of the major newspapers in the state. We travel to Washington DC, we throw parties and host meetings, and we listen to Montanans’ views on river protection. Of course, sometimes we go packrafting. And it is paying off!

This August, East Rosebud Creek was designated as the first Wild and Scenic River in Montana since 1976! We fought a proposed hydro-power dam on East Rosebud in 2010 alongside local citizens, which kicked designation efforts into high gear. East Rosebud is renowned for its dramatic glaciated valley, excellent fish populations, challenging paddling, and as a home for rare and roaring wildlife. Forest Service studies recognized these outstanding values and helped inspire protection.

The bipartisan East Rosebud Wild and Scenic River Act will now ensure the creek remains free-flowing for future generations, and that the special values of the Creek will be preserved. So, how is East Rosebud in a packraft? I don’t know… yet. With spirits soaring we are moving ahead with pursuing designations for more streams in Montana, and are steadily adding river protections to National Forest plans across the state. East Rosebud is just the beginning.

Montana has three Wild and Scenic rivers, including the Flathead River, Missouri River, and, now, East Rosebud Creek. The South Fork of Birch Creek is not designated, but as the Wilderness Act turns 50 years old, we are celebrating all of Montana's wild rivers. Birch Creek lies in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photo by Kevin Coburn.
Montana has three Wild and Scenic rivers, including the Flathead River, Missouri River, and, now, East Rosebud Creek. The South Fork of Birch Creek is not designated, but is a future candidate. Birch Creek lies in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photo by Kevin Coburn.

The Hard Facts About Wild and Scenic Designations

Designation as a Wild and Scenic River is our nation’s strongest form of protection for free-flowing rivers and streams. These rivers have “Outstanding Remarkable Values” (ORVs), which are categorized as scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historical, cultural or other similar values that led Congress to add these waterways to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. To date, the Wild and Scenic River Act has protected more than 12,700 miles of rivers and streams throughout the United States.

East Rosebud Creek in Montana was found eligible for Wild and Scenic River Designation due to three Outstandingly Remarkable Values (ORVs). Although only one (out of eight) ORVs are necessary for Wild and Scenic Designation, the Forest Service named three for East Rosebud Creek, being Geologic, Recreational and Scenic:

  1. Geology: The drainage surrounding East Rosebud Creek is a glacially scoured, “U”- shaped valley, with a number of large waterfalls and glacial lakes located in the drainage.
  2. Recreation: East Rosebud Creek is perhaps the best Class V whitewater kayaking creek on the northeast side of the Beartooth Mountain Range. East Rosebud Creek offers three miles of continuous, non-stop Class V whitewater without any big falls. It is also a popular trout fishery. The fishery in this reach is comprised of wild brown and rainbow trout and is popular among anglers in the region.
  3. Scenery: Incredibly scenic, glacially carved valley with high granite faces, alpine lakes large waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks – truly extraordinary for the region.

The Wild and Scenic Designation Allows:

  • Management with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that facilitated the initial designation.
  • The continuation of recreation, agriculture, and residential development.
  • Voluntary stewardship by landowners and river users.
  • Protection of the river via regulation and programs of federal, state, or local governments.

The Wild and Scenic Designation Does NOT :

  • Prohibit all development.
  • Give government control of private property.
  • Allow federal government to support actions that would harm the river’s free-flowing, water quality, or outstanding resource values, such as the construction of dams or other detrimental in-stream activities.
  • Effect existing water rights or the existing jurisdiction of states and the federal government over waters as previously established by law.

With its new designation, 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek have been protected as a free-flowing waterway. The efforts towards its designation have been ongoing since 2009, with support of many locals who are beyond happy to see this special place protected.

Want to get more involved? You can check out Montanans for Healthy Rivers and endorse our Wild and Scenic proposals at HealthyRiversmt.org, and keep an eye on American Whitewater’s website for opportunities to speak up for wild rivers across the United States.

As well, all this month (September 2018) you can enter the 5000 Miles of Wild Campaign by sharing your river stories. American Rivers is working in conjunction with American Whitewater to run this campaign to save 5000 more river miles and to gather 5000 river stories from you. Enter today by clicking here, and get the chance to win an Alpacka Scout.

The North Fork of Deep Creek, which flows into Oregon's Wild and Scenic Clackamas River. Photo by Kevin Coburn.
The North Fork of Deep Creek is one of many rivers currently under review for new interim protections by the Forest Service as a potential Wild and Scenic River. Photo by Kevin Coburn.