By HDN Editorial Board
From the confluence of the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers in south-central Montana, the Missouri River flows over 2,000 miles across the heartland of America where, at the gateway to the west, it merges with the Mississippi outside St. Louis. As one of the longest rivers in the country, it easily sustains river-boat travel, electricity, recreation and agriculture, while draining over 529,000 square miles of land.
Montanan's are proud of their mighty river, and in 1976, those that realized it was time to give something back to the river insisted that Congress move to protect it. Congress responded by designating the last undeveloped portion of the river as Wild and Scenic, believing that the magical words would forever protect this minuscule section of fragile waterway.
Now, nearly 25 years later, that belief is proving to be fallacious and the last best part of the river, once again, looks to be in jeopardy.
According to Bob Decker of the Montana Wilderness Association, the current designation of Wild and Scenic does not go far enough in protecting the river's future.
"Outside the area covered in the Wild and Scenic designation, there are six wilderness study areas and 250,000 acres of roadless land, not to mention the additional acres of public land that has already been developed in some way," Decker said. "None of it is protected under the current Wild and Scenic designation."
But it should be.
The current designation, drawn up in 1976, overlooked several factors: The upcoming Lewis and Clark Bicentennial; the threats of an encroaching society; the conflict between agriculture and environment; and the damages already sustained to the river as a whole.
Now, groups such as the Resource Advisory Council, supposedly comprised of a cross section of people who represent central Montana issues, will have a say in the river's future when it offers its "suggestions" to the Secretary of the Interior on how to "protect" the river.
While it's nice to see ranchers and conservationists sitting at the same table, trying to work toward a common goal, we hope self interest doesn't play a role when the council draws its conclusion and offers its suggestions to Washington.
Knowing that only seven percent of the entire length of Missouri River and its uplands remain in a natural state is already a travesty. Its time to put the river first, to give something back, and expand the land designation to cover more than a good feeling.
As the Montana Wilderness Association said, this small corridor is the most significant part of the entire river that remains intact, looking as it did when Lewis and Clark made its way up the river in 1805.
We can keep it that way, and we should expect nothing less.