Organizers scrambled to add several additional rows of chairs in the Community Room at the Billings Public Library, 510 N. Broadway, to accommodate the unexpected crowd that came to hear speakers discuss protecting the East Rosebud Creek area under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

U.S. Sen. John Walsh and aides from Rep. Steve Daines’ office attended the meeting.

The meeting was set after Frank Annighöfer, vice president of the Friends of East Rosebud group, recently visited lawmakers in Washington, D.C. His mission was to advocate for the designation, which would preserve the area in the Beartooth Mountains from the development of new dams and other types of pollution or diversion.

“Frank came to my office last week and said this was an important issue so we set up this little session,” Walsh said.

Walsh and Daines have each considered introducing legislation to protect the East Rosebud area under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The last time a river was protected under the act in Montana was 1976.

At the meeting, a time for comments was not included, because of time limitations, but attendants were encouraged to fill out comment cards.

“We’ll consult all the ideas and see what they have to say to decide if it’s something we want to move forward with,” Walsh said.

During his speech to the group, Walsh said, “I’m not going to take action on anything without input from Montanans. I truly believe that it’s you that I work for.”

While the Friends of East Rosebud have tried for several years to get the designation, the most recent push began after a Bozeman company allowed its preliminary permit to build two small hydroelectric projects on East and West Rosebud creeks to expire.

A recent study conducted by FM3 Research and Public Opinion Strategies concluded that two-thirds of Montanans have recreated on Montana’s rivers in the last year.

Clint Branger, a landowner whose family has lived in the area for more than 100 years, was one of the speakers at the meeting.

He used his hat to point at landmarks in an aerial photograph of the area. From hunting, to raising hay for his livestock, he said being in the valley is a source of all aspects of his livelihood.

“Really, I don’t make a living, I get to play here,” he said with a smile.

He said he is confident that whether the designated as a wild and scenic area or not, the people who use the area will work to protect it.

“If it’s not designated wild and scenic, I really feel that ll the people that live and love it are going to fight to keep it that way,” he said.

Annighöfer, who moderated the discussion, said now is a watershed moment for the group to obtain the designation.

“We were very glad that the senator came,” he said. “Now the cork is out of the bottle. We’ll see what happens.”

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Chris Cioffi covers city news for The Billings Gazette in Montana.