Lessons From the Latest Wild & Scenic Success: East Rosebud Creek

In early August, Montana won its first Wild and Scenic Rivers designation since 1976. The key to success? Addressing community concerns at the kitchen table.

Photo by Mike Fiebig

On Thursday, August 2, 2018, H.R. 4645, the “East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” was signed into law, designating segments of the East Rosebud Creek in the State of Montana for protection in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The designation is a victory for a diverse coalition of local and regional stakeholders who worked together for nearly a decade.

“This victory is a testament to the ability of water to unite rather than divide us,” says Nicole Silk, President of River Network. “By focusing on what matters at the local level, we can find a path forward that includes healthy rivers too.” River Network exists to give local groups access to the knowledge, tools, and resources they need to succeed and connects them for greater impact. But as experiences around the country suggest, building trust and cooperation takes time and dedication.

“Advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint,” says the Northern Rockies Conservation Director at American Rivers, Mike Fiebig, who met with many locals about the proposed designation. “As advocates, we need to meet people where they are, which is often not where we are in regards to understanding federal protections and environmental policy. People need time to get comfortable with the laws, to talk to their neighbors, and to [know] that [changes] won’t have unintended consequences.”

Conversations began among East Rosebud locals in response to a proposed dam in 2009. A community coalition—Friends of East Rosebud—sprung up with the help of American Whitewater. Then a second coalition launched, Montanans for Healthy Rivers. The solution became clear: The best long-term strategy to prevent dams would be to secure a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation on East Rosebud Creek.

Coalitions began preparing for Wild and Scenic designation in 2013. It would take years of practical discussion and community grassroots efforts for a bill to receive unanimous consent from the House Committee in April 2018, which passed the Senate three months later. 

Skepticism Overcome

Locals had a healthy level of skepticism for the “Wild and Scenic” designation, locals like fourth-generation Montanan Clint Branger, who is widely known for his career as a 15-year rodeo champion. His priority is to protect the legacy of this land and to help preserve its natural resources. Most residents in the area, including Branger—and especially agricultural producers—were concerned about how designation would affect their water rights.

Leslie Ziegler, who helped incorporate Friends of East Rosebud and a 40-year resident of East Rosebud Creek, was not familiar with Wild and Scenic: “We knew that a dam shouldn’t be built,” she says, “There is a lot of economic good along the river through hiking, fishing, and other recreation.” Ziegler felt that it was important to educate residents and gain support and sought help to do so.

There’s no better way to gain trust than meeting people in person, according to Fiebig. “There is no substitute for sitting down with people over a cup of coffee or doughnuts, or walking their land with them, and hearing their story when you’re working on proactive conservation.”

“We are non-political people who really care about this river,” says Ziegler. “Our Montana legislatures have helped educate residents and supported this bipartisan bill.” Constituents wanted to know how Wild and Scenic would change—or would not change—private property rights and water access points, in addition to personal water rights:

  1. Water Priority

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act provides an instream flow water right. The act also dictates that water rights are prioritized based on date of designation. Most of the East Rosebud area’s property owners hold water rights from the 1800s. Therefore, the Brangers, for instance, retain first-priority rights to the water, even during a drought.

  1. Private Property

The rights of private property owners go unchanged. The state and local municipality rights and development plans are also reserved under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If private property hugs the corridor of a designated Wild and Scenic River, visitors are not permitted to access the land due to the Wild and Scenic designation.

  1. Access for Recreation

Consider the Montana Stream Access Law, which allows the public to have full recreational use of rivers or streams that are below the mean high-water mark. That right to access continues after a Wild and Scenic River designation is passed. The current hunting and fishing regulations in the vicinity of the Wild and Scenic River go unchanged, too.

  1. Public Lands

When a Wild and Scenic River flows through public lands the current rights, access, and recreation management are also retained under the area’s public land management rules, whether it’s the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

  1. Federal Restriction

Wild and Scenic designation bars federally licensed projects such as a dam or diversion, a permit for a mine, or a permit for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for riprap. Federally licensed projects are under the federal jurisdiction, and they would potentially impact a river’s free flowing character, water quality or outstanding values.

Learning from Collective, Grassroots Success

If there’s one clear lesson from East Rosebud’s success it’s this: Grassroots advocacy works when it honors perspectives, when it strengthens individuals’ understanding of what protection means for them, personally.

Fiebig focuses on pragmatic versus ideological concerns. “In the rural west, we sometimes encounter ideological opposition,” he reflects. “I’m not going to change someone’s ideology about the federal government or protected lands. When there is a pragmatic concern about policy and law, then the situation is about becoming comfortable with this tool—the Wild and Scenic designation—for the protection of their values.”

The momentum of river protection in Montana isn’t slowing down. More than 1,000 citizens and over 2,000 businesses endorsed a collective proposal, led by Montanans for Healthy Rivers, that would protect a total of 42 rivers across the state. For the next Wild and Scenic river designation, a similar slow-but-steady approach to growing local support may just work.

Our rivers need us all. To find your closest river and who is protecting your water, visit the Water Protectors Map.