“Yellowstone” carries a distinction that Mike Penfold thinks Montana communities along the 700-mile-long Yellowstone River have neglected to cash in on.
“You think about the name Yellowstone and there’s no place in the world that has that cachet,” he said. “And tie that in with the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48, 17 museums along the way … it’s an absolute jewel of an opportunity to create a recreation area.”
He compares it to a watery Appalachian Trail, a world-famous 2,200-mile hiking route that extends from Georgia to Maine. Thousands hike portions of the trail every year.
Although he admits that his Yellowstone River idea is unlikely to bear fruit in his lifetime, Penfold still thinks it’s worth putting the wheels in motion, and that’s something he knows a lot about. The untiring retiree is a former Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service administrator who has worked with conservation, land access, history and hunting groups in the Billings area for the past 15 years. If any one individual might be able to bring a diverse group of people together, Penfold is the go-to guy.
The Yellowstone River is unquestionably a unique resource that changes mightily along its route. Born high in the mountains of Wyoming, it flows into the deep, geothermically active waters of Yellowstone Lake. On its route out of Yellowstone, it plunges 1,000 feet as it passes through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Once in Montana, the river winds through the stunningly beautiful and aptly named Paradise Valley, with its alp-like Absaroka Mountains rising abruptly from the valley floor.
In between Paradise Valley and Billings, the river slowly transitions from a cold-water trout stream to a warm-water prairie fishery. From Billings downstream anglers will find smallmouth bass, catfish, pike and sauger instead of trout. Ancient fish even ply the river’s lower waters — pallid sturgeon, an endangered species. From where the Bighorn River joins the Yellowstone downstream, the waterway is a magnet for waterfowl, especially Canada geese that flock to the river by the thousands on fall flights southward.
By the time the Yellowstone River empties into the Missouri River, just across the Montana border in North Dakota, it has traveled 692 miles without a major dam. Admittedly, numerous low irrigation dams exist along the route to divert water to ditches. But large hydroelectric dams, such as those constructed on other major rivers of the Yellowstone’s size, have never been built, meaning it can still be paddled with little problem.
Besides wildlife, fishing, floating and vistas, the Yellowstone River also links a number of historic occurrences in human history — from early residents who left pictograph and petroglyph drawings of turtles and war deeds on rock walls, to the Lewis and Clark Expedition — there’s a wealth of history along the way for people to explore.
“Every time we do something historically, we find there’s more there,” Penfold said.
More importantly to the agricultural community, the Yellowstone River provides sustenance to community water supplies and powers sprinklers that irrigate crops of corn, barley and sugar beets.
“Our entire economic glue in the Yellowstone River valley is water,” Penfold said.
Sustaining the river’s flow in the face of drier winters and summers, as well as increasing agricultural and suburban water use, could be a challenge.
“The question is how do you get the focus? The value is there,” Penfold said.
There’s a blueprint for the type of design Penfold envisions, called the National Blueways System. The federal program creates a diverse partnership to preserve and manage a watershed from its headwaters to its mouth.
Penfold came up with the idea while researching the ownership of islands in the Yellowstone River. He’s located several that he believes are owned by the state and is working to get the Department of Natural Resources Conservation to claim ownership and post signs on them.
He sees the islands as perfect places for river travelers — rafters, canoers, kayakers and drift boaters — to camp while descending the waterway. The island also provide habitat for public land hunters.
Having places to camp would be essential for those looking to use the river as a conduit to activities at communities along the Yellowstone River, Penfold said.
“All of the communities along the way have activities in the summer,” he said, ticking off such events as the Huntley threshing bee and Glendive’s Buzzard Days as examples.
What if a river runner could start in Gardiner — paddling is not allowed in Yellowstone National Park — and make their way to Sidney hitting events all along the way, one after another, in a wave of activities coordinated to specifically draw river travelers, Penfold wondered.
“So the challenge we face is how to create a dialogue that covers the entire reach and involves all of the affected communities and partners,” he said.
Penfold figures that if a way can be concocted to help local communities and businesses make money from visitors using the river, they are more likely to take care of the resource.
“The big thing is conservation of the resource,” he said.