Last summer, my wife, Katie Gibson, and I traveled the length of the Yellowstone River, 678 miles from its source on Yount's Peak in Wyoming's Teton Wilderness to its confluence with the Missouri River just inside North Dakota.
We walked through the wild headwaters country and Yellowstone Park, then paddled over 500 miles from the park boundary across eastern Montana. We ran into grizzlies and wildfires, watched soaring eagles and pelicans, listened to the slap of beavertails and the croaky staccato of sandhill cranes, and sat through soul-stirring sunsets.
Throughout the 31-day trip, Kate and I marveled at what a special gift the Yellowstone River is, not only to those of us in south-central and eastern Montana, but also to all Americans. For here in our backyard, unbelievably, runs a river almost wild and almost free. Not undammed, because there are six irrigation weirs that cross the entire river, but flowing without interruption. This is a river still largely connected to its floodplain, with naturally braiding channels and uncontrolled spring runoffs that reshape the riverbed.
A rare river indeed Just think of it: Elsewhere in our country wild salmon can't survive the replumbed waterworks of the Pacific Northwest. Millions are being spent to rip down or study the ripping down of ill-conceived dams. Hundreds of millions are being spent to restore the Napa River and reconnect it with its floodplain. Fish fight for their lives to survive the toxic cesspools of our polluted mining fiascos, Montana's upper Clark Fork River being a prime example. Everywhere in the West we are dewatering our streams until they look like gravel roadbeds each summer.
In the midst of these attempts to control and manipulate nature, the Yellowstone River runs on. It is a river that for much of its length William Clark might still recognize as the waterway he traveled eastward near the conclusion of his expedition with Lewis, in 1806.
That's not to say that the Yellowstone doesn't have its share of ecological challenges. Lake trout are displacing native cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake and threatening to destroy the food-source foundation of an entire ecosystem. Whirling disease has been found both inside and outside the park, further threatening fisheries. Septic spills from under-funded tourist facilities threaten the park's surface and subsurface waters, and by extension its major waterway, the Yellowstone River. Just outside of the park's boundary, near Gardiner, a gold mine has been proposed for an island in the middle of the river.
In Montana's Paradise Valley, the pressure to build homes in the floodplain is relentless. Developers and landowners prosper; natural riverine processes suffer. Riprap throughout the river's length protects private property but sterilizes the river. With the river disconnected from its floodplain, habitat is lost to fish and wildlife. Island formation and erosion and the great natural interplay of cottonwoods and beavers are disrupted. And when the energy of spring floods cannot dissipate naturally, they instead wreak havoc in non-armored areas.
Meeting many demands From Paradise Valley to Sidney, the river serves as our source of industrial cooling and process water. It supplies our drinking water and accepts our municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastes. We draw life-giving agricultural irrigation waters throughout the length of the Yellowstone below Gardiner, regularly dropping water levels so low that cries for dams ring out even today. For example, operators of the Corette Power Plant proposed damming the river at Billings as recently as June 2001.
Even within the context of these challenges, the Yellowstone River remains the longest free-flowing river in the Lower 48, providing a continuous linkage between Wyoming's rugged Teton Wilderness, Yellowstone Park, Livingston's Paradise Valley, the rimrock country around my original home town of Billings, and the agricultural lands of eastern Montana.
Yes, there are challenges, but those challenges are not yet the controlling factors of the river: We still have the opportunity to do something right with the Yellowstone. Limits to floodplain development and riprapping, maintenance of in-stream flows, protection of water quality from ill-planned mining, agricultural, or industrial practices, and more can help retain the natural character of the river.
We have opportunities still for protecting the Yellowstone River, but even more we have responsibilities to the generations yet to come. I want them to have a chance to know this magnificent river as Kate and I have come to know it, as it flows wild and free beneath the Big Sky.
Scott Bischke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (hcn.org). He is a chemical and environmental engineer in Bozeman, as well as a freelance writer.