By Martin J. Kidston
The expedition must have been quite a spectacle, clodding and plotting its way across the continent, heading west on a blind course determined only by the path of a muddy river.
There, to greet those horses, mules and men were the unspoiled views across the boundless prairie, the fragile breaks sheered by the water, and the untapped wetlands from which gave rise to the endless songs of the Missouri River.
However, having flowed untouched and pure for so long, the Missouri River is undergoing some dramatic changes, and 196 years after the corps of discovery fumbled its way up the river's banks, finding portions of the river in its natural state is becoming impossibly difficult.
At 2,341 miles, the Missouri River drains one-sixth of the contiguous United States, or 529,350 square miles of land -- an area three-and-a-half times larger than the entire state of Montana.
From the confluence of the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers in Montana, the Missouri River winds its way across the heartland of America where, at mid-continent, it joins the Mississippi in a graceful union outside St. Louis. But along the river's storied route, and through its years, it has undergone several transformations that have quelled its mighty ways.
The United States Geological Survey lists the river's reservoir system as the largest in the country. Currently, the muddy waters are restricted by six dams in four states which have turned one-third of the river into a lake environment.
Channelization has also played the villain by impacting the river's ecosystem. Dikes, dams and rip-rap corridors have locked the river in place. At its most extreme example, the river was shortened some 72 miles, a move which resulted in a loss of 127 miles of shoreline habitat. The damage to fish and wildlife was substantial, the full impact of which wasn't realized until 1986.
But with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial rapidly approaching, the river, like a mighty dragon, is stirring from dormancy to regain its voice, bringing focus to a small stretch of forgotten ground east of Fort Benton. Known as the Missouri River Breaks, it may be the only natural part of the river left intact, flowing as it did when Lewis and Clark first set eyes upon it in 1805.
Hoping to save this portion of the river from the same fate it has suffered elsewhere, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit has appointed a Resource Advisory Council to gather public opinion and form suggestions on how, exactly, to protect the Missouri River and its uplands from future degradation. But as the RAC grinds through the tedious, diplomatic process, there are others, unfettered by committees and boards, who take the river to heart. They have seen it change over the years and have come to understand the urgency in protecting it.
Executive Director of the Montana Wilderness Association Bob Decker, a Havre native, has known the river for nearly 40 years. As a boy he played upon its water, and as adult, he decided to give something back.
Decker was instrumental in drawing up the Wild and Scenic designation which currently protects a small portion of the river. Now, he wants to take that designation a step further, because, like so many others, he fears the current level of protection will not be enough to guard it from the destructive ways of an uncertain future.
Through his town-to-town travels across Montana and his discussions with ranchers and conservationists, Decker has learned that these typically-divided groups share a single vision for the river's future -- to keep it like it is. The problem is, Decker said, the two camps don't know they're on the same side of the issue.
"Between the ranchers and the conservationists, it's amazing how many people say they want to keep the river as it is," Decker said. "But we can't do that by doing nothing -- we can't keep sitting on the status quo."
The status quo, according to Decker, is the current Wild and Scenic designation which covers a narrow ribbon of the river itself. This has Decker concerned because the designation only protects the river's immediate shorelines. It does not protect the Missouri River Breaks or upland areas which complete the river's habitat.
"Outside the area covered in the Wild and Scenic designation, there are six wilderness-study areas, 250,000 acres of roadless land, and the additional acres of public land that has already been developed in some way or another," Decker said. "None of this is protected under the current Wild and Scenic designation."
The lack of a proper, wide-reaching designation and the threat of development continues to encroach on the last of the last -- that vulnerable region of land known as the Missouri River Breaks. When compared to the entire scope of the Missouri River, Decker said, the breaks are quite small -- but however small and unique, developers have already set plans for the area.
In a recent story, the Bureau of Land Management in Billings said that nearly 350 natural gas wells have been drilled in the region in the last 30 years, and up to 50 percent of those are in areas which groups like the Montana Wilderness Association want to protect. Decker said that more wells often mean more roads, more development and a higher level of impact to the area. Then there's the mass of people expected to explore the river in the next few years. For Decker, it all combines to demonstrate the necessity of implementing adequate protection -- and doing it soon.
"This corridor is the most significant part of the Lewis and Clark route that remains intact," Decker said. "But the area's usage is rapidly increasing, and the number of people who are expected to visit segments of the river are quite intimidating."
Decker said studies have estimated that as the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approaches, nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population, or some 25 million people, will visit the Missouri River in the next few years.
"Many of those people will want to go to the place where the river is still natural and the land is of significant size," Decker said. "That area is the Missouri River Breaks."
Like Decker, Director of Grants and Sponsored Research at Montana State University-Northern, and retired farmer Greg Jergeson is also aware of the recent interest in the Missouri River. Jergeson, who recently took a trip to Washington, D.C., said he found himself in a bookstore outside the Jefferson Memorial, where the public's interest in the river became evident.
"I watched what was catching people's interests," Jergeson said, "and that was the upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial. They're looking at the next trip to put on their calender, and there was a huge amount of interest in the expedition."
But when it comes to protecting the Missouri River Breaks, Jergeson has different priorities. His agricultural background is expressed in what he said are the fears of his constituents, other farmers and ranchers who are leery that a broader designation would hinder their way of life.
"I know a lot of the concern my constituents have expressed is that these changes will somehow change their way of life," Jergeson said, adding that those concerns don't necessarily place them on the opposite side of conservationists.
"There are a lot of common themes to both sides that, if fully explored, they could come to some level of agreement on," Jergeson said. "It's almost like the political context has grown in the state, to where both sides feel they have nothing in common with the other side, even if they don't know anything about them."
Though ranchers and conservationists don't see eye to eye on every issue surrounding the river, they do, for the most part, share one common thread -- to keep the river as it is, and to preserve the last best place along the historic waterway.
The RAC is expected to advise the Secretary of Interior by the end of the year on what it feel is the best working solution for the Missouri River Breaks. It's unknown if that will include a new land designation strong enough to protect the river's last best place.