FORSYTH — The Yellowstone River powers a formidable economic engine as it flows out of Yellowstone National Park, bringing tens of millions of dollars in nonresident angler revenue to Park County alone. But as the river continues eastward, widening, deepening and warming as it approaches its confluence with the Missouri River, those recreation and tourism dollars start to dry up. That’s due in part to gaps in the river’s recreation infrastructure. The Lower Yellowstone River Coalition, a group of elected officials, economic development councils, recreationists and conservationists, has a plan to change that.
By Republican state Sen. Duane Ankney’s recollection, the group got its start over iced tea on the deck of his Colstrip home three or four years ago. A series of meetings ensued, giving community members an opportunity to hone their vision for the Lower Yellowstone. They landed on a collaborative effort to expand recreation infrastructure for locals and visitors, hoping to spread the kind of recreation-driven commerce that communities like Gardiner and Livingston have long enjoyed to rural communities in eastern Montana. Investing in boat ramps, campgrounds, portage trails and potable water, they decided, could help address shortcomings that frustrate would-be river users and unlock tourism dollars that have proven so key to Montana’s thriving — and growing — outdoor economy.
The group was cheered when former Gov. Steve Bullock included the project in his proposed budget for the 2023 biennium. This spring the funding was locked in when the Legislature allocated $4 million to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the project. In mid-June, Gov. Greg Gianforte flew to Forsyth to deliver remarks, telling an audience of elected officials, public lands advocates and economic development proponents that while the Yellowstone River is incredibly important to southeast Montana, it’s been underutilized.
“There aren’t enough boat ramps, there aren’t enough hiking trails, there aren’t enough campgrounds,” he said. “We have this world-class resource here in southeast Montana, but it’s just not accessible.”
FWP is assembling a 12-person steering committee to develop recommendations for projects the department can fund. Angie Grove, the committee’s chair and former chair of the State Parks & Recreation Board, said FWP would like to assemble a group that represents diverse interests, including recreationists, landowners, members of local conservation and irrigation districts and community members.
Grove is hoping to hold an initial meeting in July and wrap up in four to six months. She said she intends to find ways to leverage the $4 million appropriated by the Legislature through matching grants from private donors and federal programs.
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here to really come up with a vision for future generations,” she said. “I think we’re all committed to making sure kids and grandkids and neighbors can explore the river in the very near future, so we’re hoping to build on that $4 million.”
Grove said she anticipates that improving the river’s access shortcomings will be a top priority. One stretch of the river includes a 50-mile section without an established access point, which tends to deter users or push them onto private property, creating problems for both landowners and recreationists. Gianforte said one of the project’s top priorities is supporting private property rights — a necessary consideration as so much of the river-adjacent property is privately owned. The state intends to work with willing landowners to improve access to the river, he said, and to take direction from local communities rather than from “bureaucrats in Helena.”
OPENING ACCESS, MITIGATING HAZARDS
Sharon Brodie knows all about the Yellowstone River’s access issues. In 2014, she paddled a 14-foot touring kayak from Gardiner, southeast of her home in Bozeman, to the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri River just east of the North Dakota state line, save for a couple of particularly hairy sections she’d paddled on previous trips. She wanted to arrive at her 30th high school reunion in Fairview, a town of about 850 on the North Dakota border, by boat. Three weeks and 472 river miles later, she did. She calls it the trip of a lifetime, but she’s hesitant to recommend it to others.
The river is deep and fast with channels that are prone to changing course from season to season, and locating established and functional access points is tricky. Some boat ramps are operational only at certain flows and for certain kinds of boats, for example, and others have fallen into disrepair. On top of that, there are a number of hazards that don’t immediately announce themselves. During her trip she encountered half-submerged cottonwood trees careening along in high-water flows, banks stabilized with riprap, and potentially hazardous irrigation diversions she learned to listen for. She found herself sharing the river with a couple of motorboats that zipped by so fast she was worried they wouldn’t see her in time to swerve around.
From Billings to Fairview, those were the only two other boats she saw on the river. Her trip was in June, so boat traffic was probably limited by the roiling water that one day helped her cover a 22-mile stretch in just two hours and muddied the water enough to keep most anglers at home. At one point, a friend standing on the bank near Sidney used a radar gun to gauge her speed: Even with her kayak paddle out of the water, he clocked her at 20 mph.
Having grown up near the river — Brodie remembers checking sauger setlines with her father and hunting for agates on sandbars — the trip felt within reach, but she still spent much of the spring preparing for it. She pored over river maps, piecing the trip together one section at a time. She scratched out a hand-written itinerary outlining various hazards and noting which channels to follow when the river braided.
The hazards were many, but so were the rewards. In one stretch near Pompeys Pillar, she saw about 75 bald eagles in a rookery in a large cottonwood grove. She spent half of another day watching river otters slide down a bank. From her camping spots on islands, she listened to coyotes howling when trains passed at night. She watched the sun rise on the eastern horizon and set in the west, staining the sky with a ruddy palette of reds and oranges. Brodie’s father likes to say eastern Montana is a place you can go “to stretch your eyes,” and she’s inclined to agree.
Seven years later, she said she loves knowing the river and those memories are out there. Boaters have to develop competence to deal with the river’s challenges, but she said the payoff is big. Pulling up a map of the Yellowstone on her phone, she said, “That still makes me super proud when I look at it.”
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITY
When Christine Whitlatch, one of the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition’s most enthusiastic boosters, looks at a map of the 175-mile stretch of river from Hysham to Sidney, she sees heaps of potential that’s just starting to be tapped. Last year Rosebud County put on its first “Catoberfest” catfishing tournament. In late July, Glendive is hosting a triathlon that will include biking, river kayaking and running. And nearby Makoshika State Park, a destination popular with dinosaur enthusiasts that’s been described as a “gentle badlands,” surpassed 100,000 annual visitors for the first time in 2020. Three years ago, Friends of Makoshika State Park purchased two high-powered telescopes to help attract stargazers searching for the kind of black night skies that show off the vibrancy of the Milky Way. Eastern Montana is also abundant with fish and wildlife, particularly upland game birds like turkey, pheasant and grouse, making it popular with hunters. Anglers come to the warm-water fisheries for walleye, sauger, smallmouth bass, catfish, paddlefish and shovelnose sturgeon.
Whitlatch said much of that richness has been overlooked, but those who find it appreciate it and return, not only for the landscape and recreational opportunities, but also for the hospitality.
“People come back once they spend time in southeast Montana, once they discover there’s so much more to Montana than mountains and skiing, which, on a state level, is really what you see promoted,” she said.
“It has this really unique history of people who have survived the land, the weather. [There’s] this agricultural grit and perseverance that lives through those communities, that kind of village in community. You just don’t find that everywhere.”
Whitlatch lives in Billings now, but for many years she lived in Glendive, and she holds strong to her conviction that “eastern Montana goes far beyond Billings.”
Gianforte sees investment in the area not only as a way to draw tourists and dollars, but as part of a larger campaign to keep young people in the state and encourage those who’ve left to return.
“We want people to come back to Forsyth, Miles City, Glendive, Sidney — particularly people who grew up here,” he said at the June 16 event in Forsyth. “When they come back home, they bring Montana values with them, and this builds our communities and makes them stronger.”
The governor’s Come Home Montana campaign, launched in early June, highlights the state’s recent broadband infrastructure investments aimed at facilitating remote work, a pandemic-accelerated trend that’s manifested in both so-called Zoom boomtowns and more under-the-radar locales. “Work remote. Live connected. The way life should be,” reads the promotional material on the state website directed at people who’ve left the state in search of economic opportunity. The website includes short bios of several towns that might appeal to returning Montanans.
Some see expanded recreation infrastructure in eastern Montana as a complement to the farming and ranching that’s long been a cornerstone of the region’s economy. Mike Penfold, the conservation program director for state park advocacy nonprofit Our Montana, said he thinks recreation and agriculture are “totally compatible,” and both are necessary to preserve the state’s smaller communities.
“We don’t want to see them dry up,” he said.
The Yellowstone River Conservation Districts Council, which works to balance the river’s ecological health with the economic viability of communities along it, hasn’t taken an official stance on the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition, but a YRCDC council member has applied to serve on the advisory committee FWP is assembling, said YRCDC councilmember Dan Rostad. Rostad noted that Yellowstone River water used to irrigate nearby sugar beet, corn, barley and hay fields in Rosebud and Treasure counties contributed to an estimated $16.4 million in irrigation-dependent revenue last year.
“There’s a huge impact [attributed to] irrigation on the Yellowstone, particularly the Lower Yellowstone,” Rostad said.
Whitlatch said promoting public education programs like FWP’s Recreate Responsibly initiative, actively seeking stakeholder engagement and creating well-thought-out portage trails around irrigation diversions could go a long way toward helping the two heavyweight economic sectors exist peaceably.
“Agriculture is our No.1 economic driver in the state of Montana, so we always have to be cognizant of that, but outdoor recreation is growing rapidly,” she said. “The leaders of southeast Montana really understand that they need to build those economic supports to have those healthy communities.”
‘EVERYTHING I NEED’
Matthew Rinella, a Miles City-based rangeland management specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has mixed feelings about the state’s $4 million investment and what it represents. He’s an avid advocate for access to public lands — he led an effort to restore public use of a river access site in Miles City that the USDA closed several years ago following a vandalization incident — but he also knows that increasing access means he’ll have to share the landscape he’s come to treasure.
“There are large stretches that you can’t get to without a real commitment, which, selfishly, I love,” he said. “I’m a person that doesn’t mind getting in my boat and putting upstream 20 miles.”
He said he and his friends are a little worried that changes might include a motorless designation for parts of the Lower Yellowstone, throttling its main recreational use and preventing locals from enjoying it the way they have their whole lives.
Even more than that, he fears that additional user traffic will change recreationists’ experience of the area, which he described as “among the least appreciated ecosystems in the western U.S.”
“My biggest concern [is] it would become too crowded for anybody to enjoy,” he said.
For a long time, Miles City, the largest town along the Lower Yellowstone, has maintained a remarkably stable population. It has about 8,000 residents — close to its count a century ago. It has some of the amenities of a larger town — a Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply, a Walmart and a community college — and on a recent weekday it felt neither busy nor sleepy. Unlike so much of the state, it isn’t booming and it isn’t fading. It’s holding steady.
Rinella has lived in Miles City for the better part of two decades, and he’s found that it suits him just fine.
“It has everything I need,” he said. “I wouldn’t go to a play if we had a theater. I’m too old to go to rock concerts now, I’m too old to go to a bar.” He loves the wildlife — the abundant game birds in particular — and would rather jig for sauger than cast for trout. He suspects that if more people had a chance to experience eastern Montana’s offerings, they’d see what he sees.
“I think if people knew what a fantastic place it is to live, [more people] would move here,” he said.
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This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.