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A bill to protect 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek in an area some call “the Alps of Montana” is headed to the president’s desk.

The East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act will add portions of the creek in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness both upstream and downstream of East Rosebud Lake to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The area is home to a popular hiking trail known as The Beaten Path north of Cooke City, and is prime trout spawning habitat for the populations in Rosebud Creek and the Stillwater and Yellowstone Rivers, according to the advocacy group Friends of East Rosebud.

Recreation on the creek generates millions of dollars annually for the local economy, the legislation says.

Identical bills passed the House on July 17 and Senate on July 25. The bill now awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.

Frank Annighofer, a semi-retired, year-round resident who has lived on East Rosebud Creek for the past 15 years, said efforts to protect the river began in 2009, when a group proposed to build a hydroelectric dam just below East Rosebud Lake. 

The proposal included plans for a power station near Jimmy Joe Campground, just north of the lake, Annighofer said. 

"Yeah, that got our attention," he said. 

Annighofer and a handful of other residents formed the Friends of East Rosebud to fight the proposal, lobbying elected officials and writing opinion pieces in the local newspapers.

Plans were dropped in 2013, according to the advocacy group, but it took them another seven trips to Washington, D.C. and six bills that eventually died in Congress before they succeeded in getting the "wild and scenic" designation this year. 

Congress established the federal protections in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 as a way to preserve cherished rivers.

The Montana delegation applauded the measure’s passage.

“Getting this bill to the president’s desk was a bipartisan effort and it was led by the folks on the ground who access this river year-round,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said.

“Having spent time in this beautiful place, I know how important it is to our Montana way of life and outdoor economy,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said.

“East Rosebud Creek is one of our natural treasures that deserves protection,” said Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana.

The measure will designate the 13-mile segment of East Rosebud Creek, beginning at Fossil Lake and extending down to East Rosebud Lake, as a wild river. Wild rivers, under the act, have primitive shorelines, are free from dams or diversions and accessible only by trail.

It designates as a recreational river the 7-mile stretch immediately below East Rosebud Lake until the creek reaches private property. Recreational rivers, under the act, are accessible by road or rail and may have diversions or some development already in place.

Under the federal act, rivers may be classified as wild, scenic or recreational. All classifications are made with the goal of preserving free-flowing rivers and balancing the dams or other construction along many U.S. rivers.

The act does not ban development along protected rivers, but it does ban the federal government from supporting projects like dams that could harm water quality or scenic value. It also provides some protections for land alongside the river, within a quarter mile. 

Less than 1 percent of Montana's river miles are protected under the federal act. The sections of four rivers currently protected are: a 149-mile stretch of the Upper Missouri River, and 219 miles of the North, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River.

Nationally, less than 0.25 percent of the country’s river miles are protected under the “wild and scenic” designation, according to rivers.gov. That’s 12,734 miles of river way, while 75,000 large dams across the country have modified an estimated 600,000 miles, or at least 17 percent of American rivers.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.