Montana’s rivers are part of the fabric of our state. Like a magnet, they draw people, wildlife, and vegetation to their banks.

When I first moved to Montana after graduating college, I worked for a kayaking and canoeing outfitter in Missoula. On my days off I was allowed to take their boats on the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. I spent days learning the landscape via the waterways that carve through sweeping valleys and narrow canyons. Beneath my paddle strokes, trout lazed in the same crystalline water that had dulled each stone and sculpted each bend in the river for thousands of years.

Rivers are simultaneously resolute and vulnerable. They have existed for much longer than Montana has been a state but can also be changed with the ink marks of a signature and the pull of a backhoe. On these floats, I pondered the implications of change — potential dams, armored banks, and mining prospects — and thought of all the times untouched rivers had taught me to slow down and participate in the moment.

Moose meeting

Years later when paddling the Gallatin River alone, I rounded a bend and came face-to-face with a young bull moose. It froze, its heavy body resting on stubby legs, shortened in a strange refraction of light. I mimicked its stillness, pausing my paddling as I let the river skew my kayak perpendicular to the flow, and absorbed the creature's presence in the quiet. The interaction was unlike previous interactions with moose I’d had in the past; neither of us threatened by the other’s presence, we remained completely placid. The water created a neutral meeting space, one where we were just two figures in the landscape, and not a potential predator and its prey. The current tugged me further downstream and the moment passed. The profound medium of river travel as a way to experience the natural world was imminent.

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Designating a river as Wild and Scenic is no easy task. Conserving a river in perpetuity under the Wild and Scenic River  designation requires bipartisan backing in Congress as well as grassroots activism here in Montana. My solar design and installation company, OnSite Energy, supports local conservation causes that protect the health and vibrancy of our state. Each year we sponsor the Wild Rivers Film Tour, now in its fourth year, which serves as a dynamic reminder to people for why protecting these rivers for future generations is so important. Like me, there are many in the audience who have a long history with the wild rivers of Montana — whether it is a resource for their farmland or a place of a reprieve. We realize the potential implications of inaction.

Montana headwaters

The goal of the Montana Headwaters Security Act (www.healthyriversmt.org), draft legislation still in need of a sponsor, is to keep the upper Yellowstone, Gallatin, Rock Creek, Stillwater, and Boulder River as they are: clean and free-flowing on public lands. The Montana Headwaters Security Act will protect these iconic stream segments as Wild and Scenic Rivers, forever.

Today, rivers continue to draw me to their banks, more commonly while rafting flat water stretches with my kids than seeking adrenaline from kayaking class IV rapids. Despite this change, I take more satisfaction from my river time than ever.

Montana’s wild rivers are the fixtures that allow us to live here and that make Montana a destination for those wanting to spend time outside. They are critical to local agriculture and clean drinking water. Please support the Montana Headwaters Security Act by calling your Sen. Jon Tester 202-224-2644 and Steve Daines 202-224-2651 and Rep. Greg Gianforte 202-225-3211 to request they introduce the bill.

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Conor Darby is chief operations officer for OnSite Energy Inc. in Bozeman.


Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.