Wild and Scenic Rivers Act marks 50 years

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Steam rises off the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on Feb. 22. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

The changes of the 1960s have echoed through this decade.

Fiftieth-anniversary events marking the Kennedy assassination, civil rights movement and Vietnam War have all drawn Americans together in recent years. On Feb. 7, hundreds of Flathead Valley residents gathered to mark a lesser-known product of the 1960s.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on Oct. 2, 1968, creating a system to designate rivers with little or no human modification and preserve them in that state forever. More than 12,700 miles of waterways, from Alaska to Puerto Rico, have since been declared Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The policy drew inspiration from Northwest Montana and a pair of pioneering scientists: John and Frank Craighead.

“The Upper Middle Fork” of the Flathead River, explained the Forest Service’s Colter Pence, “was definitely one of the things that inspired and motivated the Craigheads, but also local Flathead residents, citizens, and also conservation organizations across Montana, to lobby for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”

Twin brothers John and Frank Craighead had recently begun researching the West’s ecology when, in the summer of 1956, John floated the Middle Fork of the Flathead.

It’s a route revered by Northwest Montanans and tourists from around the world. Deep canyons, snowcapped peaks, multi-colored cobbles shining through turquoise water, and fossil beds that have preserved insects’ wings for millennia can all be found along the Flathead River’s three forks.

But when Craighead floated the river, these wonders were under threat. The Army Corps of Engineers, having recently completed the Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork, was proposing another one at Spruce Park that would have flooded much of the Middle Fork.

“Would you think anybody would be for something this crazy?” local author and historian John Fraley asked the audience at the Feb. 7 event on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. “Well, I just happen to know somebody that was.”

He then read from a letter that his wife’s great-aunt Doris had written to former Sen. James E. Murray, D-Mont., in September 1956 about the dam.

“I am asking that you do all in your power to get it built,” she had written, listing power production, a new fishing lake and local employment as its likely benefits. “It’s so out of the way, and it wouldn’t interfere with anyone. From our viewpoint, there is so much for Spruce Park Dam, and so little against it.”

“There was a big local contingent that really thought it would be a good idea,” said Fraley, an adjunct instructor at Flathead Valley Community College.

But after seeing the Flathead for himself, John Craighead thought otherwise. “One dam with the accompanying roads would largely destroy the natural beauty of the Middle Fork and would have a tremendous effect on the fish and wildlife and future recreational possibilities,” he wrote in the June 1957 issue of Montana Wildlife.

“The sport fishing would suffer severely, but the fundamental loss will not be in animal species or populations but in natural beauty and wilderness. There appears to be no way to compromise exploitation of an area with preservation of the values of a virgin country.”

Demand for unspoiled recreation areas, he continued, was growing fast. “As I see it, the job of the conservationist is to assure that these areas are held intact until public thinking matures and crystallizes, then our generation or following ones can make wise decisions based on adequate information.”

To guide these decisions, Craighead proposed a system of ranking rivers as “wild,” “semi-wilderness,” “semi-exploited,” and “exploited,” depending on how heavily they had been developed.

Testifying before a Senate hearing two years later, John and Frank called for creating a system of federally protected rivers.

Across America, a small but growing number of individuals were finding other waterways in need of protection. In his 1993 book “Wild and Scenic Rivers of America,” environmental historian Tim Palmer notes that in 1957, amid discussions to create a monument in the Ozarks, the Nature Conservancy’s Missouri chapter suggested creating a system of “national rivers.” Other conservationists sought to protect corridors in that state, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

These visions coalesced over the course of the 1960s. Congress’s Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, assessing the nation’s outdoors needs in a 1962 report, recommended that “certain rivers of unusual scientific, aesthetic and recreation value should be allowed to remain in their free-flowing and natural setting without man-made alterations.”

According to the Craighead Institute, the following years saw 16 river-protection bills introduced in Congress. The one that ultimately passed, in 1968, classifies designated rivers as either “wild,” with so little development that they “represent vestiges of primitive America, “scenic,” with little development but some road access, and “recreational,” with more road access and some shoreline development.

It addressed the concerns held by Craighead and his ilk in the 1950s, prohibiting federal support for dams or other alterations on a listed river. Protecting it from other threats would fall to federal agencies, state and local governments, and private landowners.

Eight rivers, totaling 775 miles, received this designation when President Johnson signed the bill into law. However, the Flathead River wasn’t among them.

“This is one of the interesting things,” said Pence, Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River Manager at Flathead National Forest. “It was not designated, but it was listed as a study river [for possible listing], so it was recognized for its potential...But there wasn’t enough support or enough clarity on the matter to list it.”

For decades, massive construction projects – dams, highways, power grids – had been taming the West. There was hardly a consensus on curbing this development, Pence said.

She argued that Montana’s senator at the time, Lee Metcalf, was struggling to balance the demands of the environmentalists with those of residents and businesses. “With conservation-minded constituents continuing to push for protection of the three forks, and reminding him that the three forks provided the inspiration for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, he eventually did allow the three forks to be a study river when the law was passed in 1968.”

In 1976, Metcalf sponsored a series of amendments to the act that brought all of the Middle Fork, and portions of the North and South Forks, into the Wild and Scenic River System.

The task began of protecting the land around these waters. While Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park form most of the rivers’ shores, they also snake past private property.

The bill included $6.7 million to purchase land and conservation easements along the corridor – an unpopular prospect among residents like Larry Wilson.

His father owned property that fronted the North Fork for 3.5 miles. “I pretty much opposed it at the time,” he said of the legislation.

He and his family were no fans of dams – Glacier View, proposed in 1943, “would’ve flooded water clear up to our property.” But they also took issue with limits on their land use.

Chris Prew, Flathead’s Recreation Program Manager, explained in an email that the Forest Service negotiated with willing landowners over the terms of these easements. “What was pretty standard [in these agreements] was no construction or development within 200 feet of the river. There are also separate provisions stipulating height of structures, earth-tone colors, materials, etc that a private landowner with a conservation easement on their property” must submit to the Forest Service for approval.”

These terms grated on Wilson and his neighbors. “We were pretty much opposed to the government telling us what we could do on our own property,” he remembers. “We went to public meeting after public meeting.”

Prew stressed that the easements were only negotiated with willing landowners, and that no land was condemned or acquired through eminent domain. But the proceedings set landowners on edge. In an Oct. 10, 1976 letter to the Inter Lake’s editor, Coram resident Charles Green warned that “owners who have worked hard all their lives to own their land won’t give up easily and I would believe there will be bloodshed before they will give it up.”

But the negotiations went smoothly, and in the end, Wilson felt that “they weren’t interfering so much with the private property right along the river corridor.”

Wilson remembers his father receiving $500,000 – “a lot of money at that time” – for his land.

“It’s worked out well,” he said, explaining that growing pressures to develop the region have led him to back the river’s protections.

“I would still be opposed to the dam today, but I’m in favor of the Wild and Scenic River today, so we do grow up sometimes.”

The Flathead remains free-flowing and undammed, but questions surround its future management. Tomorrow, the Daily Inter Lake will examine its present and future challenges.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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