At project’s end, a close look at the Yellowstone River


David Crisp/Last Best News

Visitors look at a work by Billings artist Sherri Cornett in the Northcutt Steele Gallery at MSU Billings. Her work was up as part of the “Flow” project.

The Yellowstone River is “one of the most glorious rivers I’ve ever worked on,” a symposium speaker said in Billings on Thursday, but he warned that he has learned through study that “it wasn’t the pristine river that some people thought it was.”

Warren Kellogg, chairman of the Technical Advisory Group for the Yellowstone River Cumulative Effects Analysis, was speaking at the Voices of the River Symposium and Community Conversation at Montana State University Billings. The symposium was part of the capstone event for “Flow,” an interactive exhibition and community project that began in November.

Kellogg and other panelists said that the Yellowstone River remains in relatively good condition, but it needs to be maintained and improved to protect it for future generations.

Among the problems:

♦ Rip-rap and other “bank armor” cover some 136 miles of the river’s 670 miles, contributing to flooding farther downstream and damaging riparian habitat needed for a healthy ecosystem. Kellogg said that 7,000 acres of riparian forest has been lost along the Yellowstone since 1950.

“When you rip-rap the river,” said one of more than 300 people interviewed for the Cumulative Effects Analysis, “you get a series of jagged turns, big holes and no ripples, no runs.”

♦ Increased construction and population growth along the river heighten effects of human activity and pollution. Kayhan Ostavar of the Yellowstone River Research Center at Rocky Mountain College said students and community members pick up 7,000 pounds of trash on the Yellowstone in their annual river cleanup the second week of September.

♦ Birds, wildlife and fish are threatened by changes in the river and by pollution. Ostavar said that the three most endangered species by changes in the river are the pallid sturgeon, piping plovers and the least tern. In addition, bank swallows, which need open, eroded banks to build nests, are listed as threatened in California and Ontario.

♦ Major projects, such as the Yellowtail Dam, have long-term effects on the Yellowstone River and its tributaries.

“We have yet to figure out how we’re going to face some of these big problems,” said Burt Williams, a member of the Technical Advisory Group for the cumulative analysis.

Sometimes, he said, small changes can make a big difference. The Yellowstone, for example, has 56 species of fish, the most of any Montana river. But the Tongue River, which flows into the Yellowstone, was down to 19 species by 2005. The reason was an irrigation dam, in place since 1885, that allowed fish to swim out of the Tongue into the Yellowstone but not the other way.

As soon as a bypass channel was added a few years ago, fish began repopulating the Tongue River, he said.

♦ Invasive species, such as the Russian olive tree and noxious weeds, threaten the natural river ecosystem.

The Cumulative Effects Analysis was spurred by flooding in 1996-97 that caused numerous landowners along the river to seek permits to protect their land along the riverbank. While the effects of a single landowner seeking a single permit may be small, the long-term effects of numerous permits were uncertain.

Now the Cumulative Effects Analysis has produced 340 pages of analysis and 11 recommended practices backed by 1,500 pages of scientific documentation.

“If you don’t have the science,” Kellogg said, “they won’t listen to you.”

Even with the science, opposition and disagreement can slow progress on preserving the river. As one Yellowstone County civic leader interviewed for the project put it, “Do you want me to come in and tell you what you can do with your 160 acres?”


David Crisp/Last Best News

Works by students were included in the Youth Outreach Project portion of the exhibition.

Carrie La Seur, an environmental lawyer for Plains Justice, said that a legal guardian for the river may be needed to protect its rights as a living thing. Those include the rights to remain clean, to flow freely, to meander and to follow its own natural rhythms.

The guardian would advocate for the river at public hearings and legal proceedings, she said. Identifying the river’s rights is the easy part, she said. “What’s harder is to defend what’s right in the political brawl.”

The goal should be to ensure that the river remains intact for those who live seven generations from now, La Seur said.

“It’s a step toward being good ancestors,” she said.

Williams said the current state of the river is a “mixed bag.”

“A pallid sturgeon would say it’s in pretty bad shape,” he said.

Panelists agreed that the key was protecting the river for the future.

Susan Gilbertz, director of the environmental studies program at MSU Billings, summed it up with a quotation from a Glendive man interviewed for the project. He said that he grew up on the Mississippi River, often referred to as “Old Man River.”

“This one here,” he said, referring to the Yellowstone, “is the prom queen.” We all know, Gilbertz said, that being prom queen lasts only a fleeting moment.

The “Flow” project also included works by Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Club members and school students; an evening of poetry and jazz; a film screening of the documentary “Mixing Oil and Water”; and an exhibition of works by Billings artist Sherri Cornett in the Northcutt Steele Gallery at MSU Billings.

Cornett, who has roots in South Texas, said the project is part of her ongoing effort to combine art and social engagement. The goal is to bring the community together to find common ground on social issues.

Her work, and that of other local artists involved in the “Flow” project, remain on display on the first floor of the Liberal Arts Building at MSU Billings through March 18.

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