In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act into law and said these words: “An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.”
“So we are establishing a National Wild and Scenic Rivers System,” Johnson continued, “which will complement our river development with a policy to preserve sections of selected rivers in their free-flowing conditions and to protect their water quality.”
This act of Congress gave our nation a tool for protecting free-flowing rivers with outstanding scenic or recreational values from development. Montana, however, hasn’t designated any stream miles as Wild and Scenic since 1976, and recent dam proposals have Montanans talking about where and if we want them on any more of our free-flowing streams.
In July 2009, a Bozeman company, Hydrodynamics Inc., submitted a proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requesting permission to conduct a feasibility study for a small hydroelectric diversion dam near the mouth of East Rosebud Creek. But the East Rosebud — a small mountain stream running out of the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness just south of Absarokee — runs through one of the most beautiful valleys in the state, and the proposed dam site sits on a seven-mile stretch deemed eligible for Wild and Scenic designation by the Forest Service in 1989.
Public reaction to the idea of a dam on the East Rosebud has been firmly skeptical and has galvanized some locals and environmental groups to get behind Friends of East Rosebud Creek, one resident’s attempt to get the project halted permanently and to designate the area as a Wild and Scenic River.
Frank Annighofer, a resident of the East Rosebud Valley and founder of Friends of East Rosebud Creek, got wind of the dam proposal when a neighbor mentioned an announcement in the Red Lodge newspaper, Carbon County News, which ended with an invitation for public comment to FERC.
“I first thought hydro power was not all that bad,” said Annighofer, but after his wife, Annette Lavalette, encouraged him to look at the proposal more closely, he began to question whether the benefits really outweighed the costs.
The two are perhaps more qualified to make this kind of assessment than most; Annighofer has a doctorate in chemistry and spent much of his career as a business consultant for corporations like ENSR International (now ENSR-AECOM), a U.S. energy engineering firm with which Annighofer worked to avert environmental risks and to harness opportunities, including renewable energy. Ms. Lavalette is a chemical engineer.
The German-born pair work together to create handcrafted metal and wood art in their forge/studio on the East Rosebud (Wood and Iron Works). The free-flowing, wild character of the stream and its surroundings are some of the things they most cherish about their home river.
But like most mountain streams in the west, the East Rosebud does not have consistent flows. This is why the company’s power projections puzzled Annighofer.
East Rosebud Creek may run high during the spring runoff period and stay reasonably full through September, but flows for the rest of the year are low — too low, according to fisheries biologist Jeremiah Wood of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks — to afford losing much water without affecting the fishery, even if the diverted water would be returned to the streambed a couple of miles downstream.
Most of the environmental impact of these kinds of projects, though, is caused by the streamside structures of penstock, powerhouse, substation and power lines – concerns which the Forest Service outlined in detail in its response to Hydrodynamics’ initial proposal.
It seemed plain to Annighofer that the East Rosebud project would be neither economically feasible nor environmentally neutral – two resounding reasons to get it stopped. Annighofer used measurements from the West Rosebud in a letter to FERC to make his case.
Kevin Owens, also a valley resident with 35 years of experience in the electric utility industry in the Pacific Northwest, also sent in a letter to FERC agreeing that the numbers were off.
And Owens was able to find some streamflow data from 1984 to back it up.
According to Owens’ calculations, the dam would likely be able to produce only 35 percent of the original power estimate and was capable of contributing the proposed generator’s nameplate rating of 150 cubic feet per second during a pretty short window — really only between the runoff period of May through mid September.
It may seem extraordinary to someone not familiar with the history of dam building in the West that anyone would want to take the time and trouble to build something that is neither environmentally beneficial nor economically feasible, but, really, it’s about as common here as pie.
The Corps of Engineers’ inventory of dams in the United States comes to near 80,000 (not counting many small dams) and the recent movement — centered in the Pacific Northwest — to remove outdated and ecologically damaging dams routinely sees budgets soar into the millions. All to remove something that perhaps should not have been built in the first place.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act may be rising from obscurity in Montana as groups like Friends of East Rosebud Creek recognize it as a long-term protection tool for Montana’s eligible stream miles.
According to Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director of American Rivers, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is “our nation’s most powerful protection tool for rivers.”
Unlike the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects rivers and their environs without affecting prior private property rights, which makes it an easier sell to locals. Landowners, in fact, have been as supportive of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as environmentalist groups, and the two often work together to this end.
There is still the remote possibility that a Wild and Scenic Designation could be rolled back, though. The state of California is preparing to vote on a bill that, if passed, would push back the boundary of the Merced River (Wild and Scenic) to make way for a reservoir that would drown the area, but Wild and Scenic designation has mostly been considered the final word.
The designation, after all, not only protects free-flowing rivers but ones with exceptional scenic values.
Just being eligible for Wild and Scenic status signifies that something is special about a place and even has some power in deterring development. The Forest Service, for instance, would have to amend its Forest Plan for the area in order to give the East Rosebud project a green light. Dam building would be incompatible with the current plan, which recognizes the creek’s eligibility.
“This is very unlikely,” said Mr. Bosse, referring to the possibility of the Forest Service changing its plan. Of course, stranger things have happened.
Hydrodynamics Inc. has responded promisingly to criticism, claiming that its own list of environmental concerns with the project is longer than those raised by the opponents, but the company continues to submit the progress reports to FERC necessary to keep the project live, making some residents nervous.
According to Bosse, of Montana’s 177,000 stream miles, “only about 1,100 have been found eligible for Wild and Scenic designation, which comes out to about 0.63 percent of the stream miles in the state.”
Agencies like the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management determine eligibility in periodic plans they develop for their regions — all with standards specified in the congressional act.
“Those rivers include,” Bosse continues, “the upper Missouri and North, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River.”
American Rivers and the Billings-based organization, Northern Plains Resource Council, are actively educating groups like Friends of East Rosebud Creek that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is an appropriate tool for protection.
It’s a first step in gathering the widespread support necessary to convince Montana’s congressional delegation (U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus) to get the initiative into a bill, then convince Congress to pass it. And finally, of course, the president would need to sign it into law.
So far, only sections of the Flathead and upper Missouri Rivers have been designated as Wild and Scenic in Montana, and that was back in 1976.
Other states have carried the baton forward, though. In 2009, as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, Wyoming designated 400 stream miles as Wild and Scenic; Utah, 160; and Idaho, 316.
It’s as if the state has forgotten about the tool, like a buried wrench in dad’s rusty toolbox. Still less known is that using the tool would be following in the footsteps of two Montanans.
The Wild and Scenic Act, in fact, was born largely through the efforts of two Montana conservationists, brothers John and Frank Craighead, who successfully campaigned (together with U.S. Sen. Frank Church) to protect the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho from dam projects in the ’60s.
John Craighead, now 96, and his twin brother Frank (who died in 2001) were involved in conservation efforts since they were young men.
As teenagers, the two brothers boldly walked into the office of National Geographic and convinced the chairman of the magazine to buy their article on falconry. They would write many more articles for the magazine.
The brothers would later become known for pioneering a 12-year study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, but what John Craighead is most proud of, he has said, is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
Montana’s 1,100 eligible stream miles — areas which are uniquely beautiful pieces of Montana heritage — hang in a kind of limbo until Montana pushes the issue to Congress.
What is certain in the meantime, though, is that dam proposals like the one on East Rosebud Creek will continue to come.
On Saturday, June 30, Friends of East Rosebud Creek is holding a day of activities aimed at gathering support. The day is centered around East Rosebud Lake Lodge and includes a bird watching tour at 10 a.m., a wildflower tour at 3 p.m., a barbecue potluck from 4-6 p.m., and a Forest Service-hosted “Full Moon Walk” starting at 7 p.m.
A petition against the East Rosebud Hydro Project can be signed at saveeastrosebud.org.