Missouri River

Charles Wolf Drimal, waters conservation associate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, left, and Jeff Lukas, of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, explore a natural arch at the top of Neat Coulee above the campground at Eagle Creek in this file photo. Dozens of sandstone slot canyons and bluff formations rim the Wild and Scenic River corridor, but few get frequent exploration. 

Rivers shape human behavior just as much as they shape terrestrial geography.

Take a look at the way a rancher captures spring runoff for irrigation, or how our roads adhere to the bend in a river, or on a finer scale, observe how a river current dictates how one chooses to paddle a whitewater line, or where and why a seasoned angler casts a fly.

At a deeper level, rivers don’t just shape behavior; rivers shape the human psyche.

On my first trip to Montana in the '90s, I followed the Yellowstone River from its confluence with the Missouri to the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone and then up to the headwaters of Rock Creek on the Beartooth Plateau. I chose to drive my old Ford Bronco unhurried, steady, and matching the pace of the scenery. With windows down, I wanted to smell the sage of Eastern Montana’s prairie, feel the heat of early August on my skin, hear meadowlark calls in the lowlands transition to redtail hawk screams as I ascended toward the high country. Most of all, like many a traveler in new terrain, I wanted to cover distance without missing the many nuances of the river that captured my attention.

Early morning light on the lower Yellowstone’s flourishing cottonwood galleries somehow transcended time. A blazing mid-day sun bleached the color of the earth to khaki. Its aridity sparked a quick and spontaneous river dip and respite at a public fishing access site. The silver glitter of evening rays on Rock Creek’s mountainous waters connected me to the source of an ocean thousands of miles away. For a 21-year-old kid from Connecticut, this was spiritual. The continuum of a single river across hundreds of miles of time and space felt unifying, complete.

I realized that day that Montana is special.

Rivers imparted that teaching. And in decades since, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that this sentiment is shared by so many Montanans. We love our rivers. Although Montana is named after its mountains, it is also its rivers that have long captured our attention. These resources and life sources have also stood the test of time as being exceptionally vast, and largely unhindered. Perhaps it is their freedom that secretly attracts and unites us.

The fact that clean water and free-flowing rivers are precious to our economy and way of life is what brought all three members of Montana’s delegation together to pass the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act last month and the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act last year. Just a few nights ago during the debut of the Wild Rivers Film Tour in Billings, I witnessed men and women get choked up about their personal connection to Montana’s rivers. I also heard loud and clear their desires to see streams like the Boulder, Gallatin and Smith remain healthy forever.

Fortunately, the Montana Headwaters Security Act accomplishes this grand feat with new Wild and Scenic River protections proposed on Montana’s iconic streams on public lands. This draft legislation has the support of over 1,000 businesses and was written to protect our economy, environment and way of life.

It needs a sponsor in Congress. Please call Sens. Jon Tester 202-224-2644 and Steve Daines 202-224-2651 and Rep. Greg Gianforte 202-225-3211 to ask them to introduce the Montana Headwaters Security Act. Then, attend an upcoming Wild Rivers Film Tour to celebrate your love for Montana’s rivers.

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Charles Wolf Drimal is a senior waters conservation associate at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Visit healthyriversmt.org to learn more about the Montana Headwaters Security Act.