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POMPEYS PILLAR – A plan unveiled here Wednesday seeks to preserve the Yellowstone River much as it was when Capt. William Clark carved his initials on a sandstone bluff 195 years ago.

The seven-point plan, “Saving the Yellowstone River: A Voyage of Recovery,” has been developed over the past 18 months by a coalition of conservation groups and sportsmen’s organizations. They’re hoping to maintain the Yellowstone in its free-flowing state while protecting the river from dams, building in the floodplain, noxious weeds and unnecessary bank stabilization.

Dozens of people who gathered at Pompeys Pillar for a news conference acknowledged that the Yellowstone remains in relatively good health, but it’s threatened by development. The news conference was held just a few yards from where Clark carved the inscription: “Wm Clark July 25th 1806” into the rock.

“This is a good opportunity to protect resources that haven’t yet been destroyed,” said Scott Bosse, rivers conservation coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Bosse said the 670-mile Yellowstone River is unique among rivers within the lower 48 states because it hasn’t been significantly altered by dams, and it supports one of the world’s most productive trout fisheries.

While strolling along the banks of the Yellowstone near Pompeys Pillar National Monument, Bosse was asked to reflect on what Clark might think about the river today, nearly two centuries after carving his name on the buff-colored sandstone outcropping.

“At least he would recognize this river,” Bosse said. Other rivers that the Corps of Discovery explored – notably the Columbia, the Snake and the Missouri – have been altered by dams and other human activities to the point where Clark might have trouble recognizing them if he were alive today, he said.

Some groups involved in the river protection plan were participants in a 1999 lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t adequately address environmental concerns when it issued numerous bank stabilization projects along the Yellowstone after flooding in 1996 and 1997.

Last year U.S. District Court Judge Jack Shanstrom ruled that the Corps failed to adequately consider the cumulative effects of the projects of the river stabilization projects. The Corps has since pledged to conduct a comprehensive study on the river.

Despite the history of litigation, cooperation was emphasized at Thursday’s news conference.

Jeanne-Marie Souvigney of the conservation group American Rivers said future threats to the Yellowstone can be averted through a cooperative effort involving conservation groups, government agencies, sportsmen, landowners and private-property owners.

Preserving the rights of private-property owners along the river could be one challenge of implementing the plan. But Bosse suggested that farms and ranches located along rich Yellowstone River bottom lands could prove to be a saving grace for the river.

“People are living sustainably in concert with a free-flowing river,” Bosse said. By contrast, ranches and farms along dammed rivers have been destroyed by rising waters.

Mike Whittington, a board member of the Billings Rod and Gun Club, said the Yellowstone River provides a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities.

“It’s our hope this plan will engender a spirit of cooperation among sportsmen, landowners, and other interests, to collectively recognize, protect and enjoy the benefits derived from this special river,” Whittington said.

Robert Lubbers of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society welcomed the group’s efforts at developing a long-term plan for the river.

“We’re bird watchers of course, but the river is a resource that everyone can enjoy and use. It must be protected,” Lubbers said.

Seven objectives included in the plan are:

Promote floodplain management that preserves river dynamics and riparian habitat.

Establish a scientific description of the Yellowstone River’s watershed.

Ensure sufficient flows in the Yellowstone River and its tributaries.

Control noxious weeds along the Yellowstone River corridor.

Restore and protect native cottonwood forests and riparian vegetation. Russian olive and salt cedar, two exotic species introduced decades ago, are a threat to cottonwoods along the Yellowstone, officials said.

Safeguard fish populations by modifying the effects of irrigation diversion.

Revitalize and restore community riverfronts.

Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at thoward@billingsgazette.com

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