A new website aimed at enhancing appreciation of the Yellowstone River has been created by the Our Montana nonprofit organization.
The website, exploreyellowstoneriver.org, offers a near-complete guide to access sites, history, points of interest, community parks and trails, and bird-watching opportunities along what is arguably the nation’s longest undammed river.
“Arguably” applies here because the honor could go to the Kuskokum River in Alaska, which, depending on one’s source, is either 702 or 722 miles long, according to Mike Penfold, an Our Montana volunteer who helped develop the new site. The Yellowstone weighs in at 697 miles, he said, but if Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park is added in, the Yellowstone River takes the prize.
That sort of “bragging rights,” as Penfold put it, is just one way of promoting and defending the Yellowstone River, which is under increasing pressure from development.
“There are so many demands being made on the Yellowstone River now and in the future,” Penfold said. “Water rights are way over committed. If everybody took out the water they are entitled to, it would be dry.”
One way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to make more people aware of the recreational opportunities the river offers. The exploreyellowstone site offers a wealth of information, from the familiar—such as a warning about the notorious diversion dam east of Billings (“Do not attempt to go over the diversion,” the website warns)—to the esoteric, such as a note that seven steamboats were once docked at Huntley and a guide to islands along the river.
The website lists 13 prime bird-watching sites, with details about each. It includes details on 63 fishing access sites, 24 museums, 73 historic features and 10 biking and hiking trails near the river.
The website remains a work in progress—some photo links may not work, for example—and, as on the river itself, smooth navigation takes some practice. Our Montana has not yet made any serious effort to promote the site, but Penfold correctly notes that it is perfectly usable as is.
A good deal of work has been completed on the river in recent years, including a cumulative effects study, a Yellowstone River Basin Water Plan for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and an effort to purchase conservation easements along the river.
Work also has been done along the Bozeman Trail, and Tim Urbaniak has been photographing rock art in the area. Detailed studies of area battles, such as those waged by Indians against builders of the Northern Pacific Railroad, also have been completed, Penfold said.
But much work remains, he said. For example, Penfold said that people, farmers and cities along the river have certain rights to use Yellowstone water, but there is no requirement that they monitor how much water they actually use.
“That shows the degree to which we’re taking the Yellowstone River for granted,” he said.
Legislative funds for gauges to measure water flow along the river also have been drying up, Penfold said.
“We’re not focused on something that’s the foundation of the whole economy here,” Penfold said, the basis for everything from agriculture to drinking water in Yellowstone County.
Focus is difficult in part because of the wide range of interests in the river. It flows through 11 counties, and 18 federal and state agencies have at least some responsibility for managing the Yellowstone. About 84 percent of the land along the river is privately owned, Penfold said.
Bringing all of those interests together is one of the goals of Our Montana, whose stated mission is “to promote stewardship and enjoyment of Montana’s natural, historic, and recreational resources.”
Our Montana was founded by Paul Hickman in 1994 as the Montana State Parks Association. As the name implies, the group’s original focus was on promoting Montana’s 55 state parks, but as its mission broadened, its name was changed in 2001 to Our Montana Inc.
Robbie Carpenter is executive director of the organization, and Eileen Morris is associate director. Penfold, who has worked both for the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, is volunteer conservation program director, and John Pulasky is volunteer youth education director.
Penfold and Dale Anderson, a retired teacher and Our Montana volunteer, developed the website. Plans for further development include an app that would allow cellphone users all along the river instant access to information, and a more complete list of museums.
Errors remain to be corrected, Penfold said, and he is working on plans to meet with chambers of commerce along the river and with suppliers that have an interest in river recreation. The overriding goal is to increase awareness of just how valuable the Yellowstone is to people who live near it.
“It’s a wonderful resource,” he said, “no question about it.”