The Army Corps of Engineers has released a long-awaited plan that provides a new way to manage the Upper Yellowstone River.
The plan, called the Upper Yellowstone River Special Area Management Plan, directs the Corps to evaluate how a project may affect the entire watershed, flood plain and valley before approving a permit.
“The road map is here,” said Todd Tillinger, program manager for Corps’ Montana Regulatory Branch in Helena. “Our goal is to keep it (the river) as intact as we can.”
While the plan took 12 years to develop before recently receiving final approval, Tillinger hesitated to call it finished.
“I’m sure it will never be done. It’s a living document,” he said.
The Yellowstone is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states.
Omaha District Commander Col. Robert Ruch signed the final environmental assessment on April 12.
The SAMP will streamline the permitting process and make it more predictable for the public, the agency said.
The new plan also will benefit water quality, vegetation, wildlife, river behavior, visual and socio-cultural values, Ruch said in the assessment.
On the negative side, permitting certain transportation, agricultural and flood plain development projects will take longer and may cost more. However, those effects were not considered to be significant.
The plan applies to an 86-mile reach of the Yellowstone from its boundary with Yellowstone National Park by Gardiner to Springdale, west of Big Timber.
Within that reach is a 48-mile stretch called the Special River Management Zone, which will receive enhanced protection. The zone runs from upstream of Emigrant to a few miles downstream of the Shields River and Mission Creek confluences.
The zone is where the river is most sensitive to human disturbance and has the most productive ecology, Tillinger said.
Protections will include requiring applicants to do beneficial projects elsewhere on the river to offset or mitigate the harm or damage from a project.
The plan also calls for no longer issuing standardized, nationwide permits for certain projects like hydropower, surface coal mining operations and residential, commercial and recreational developments. Instead, the Corps will review such projects on an individual basis.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who sponsored legislation authorizing the study, said in a statement, “I cannot emphasize enough just how important a comprehensive Yellowstone River management plan is for Montana.”
Baucus said he would continue to make sure the plan is used to help protect Montana’s outdoor heritage while allowing property owners to protect their land.
American Rivers, a conservation organization that twice placed the Yellowstone on its list of most endangered rivers, praised the plan.
“The Corps is no longer going to be able to issue blank checks to landowners to do anything they want to the river,” said Scott Bosse, American Rivers’ Northern Rockies director in Bozeman. “I think the final SAMP recognizes the Yellowstone is a really special river. It’s a higher level of care and attention.”
Livingston resident John Bailey, who chaired the Governor’s Upper Yellowstone Task Force, said the information amassed in studies by the task force and through the SAMP development will help in evaluating projects.
The information can be challenged if someone thinks it is being misinterpreted, Bailey said. “But we’re all looking at the same page. That makes it a lot easier,” he said.
The Corps study began after two consecutive years of record flooding in the late 1990s triggered a rash of bank stabilization permits to prevent further erosion or property damage.
Environmental groups sued the Corps and won a federal lawsuit over the agency’s permitting practices. The judge ordered the Corps to consider the cumulative effects of bank stabilization on the river’s ecosystem.