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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone River Threat

Air Date: Week of

Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, reports on threats to the future of the Yellowstone River. Stretches of riverfront in Montana are being lined with hard walls and boulders to protect new homes from flooding. But these barriers are threatening the river's natural flow.


CURWOOD: While some dams are coming down, other impediments to the free flow of rivers are going up. New home construction along the Yellowstone River in Montana is now at an all-time high, and many homeowners eager to protect their property from flooding have been lining stretches of riverfront with hard walls and boulders. But scientists say the barriers are disrupting the river's natural cycles and threatening its future as a wild river. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, has our report.

(Flowing water)

PAIGE: Okay, are we ready, you guys?

MAN: Ready to go.

PAIGE: Okay. Good.

HOYT: Outfitter Julia Page pushes her raft into the Yellowstone River just north of Yellowstone National Park in Montana, and rows out to the icy current. Majestic purple mountains march across the horizon, throwing jagged shadows over broad green meadows. Eagles, geese, and hawks fly overhead. Great Blue Herons lift off their nest at the top of a cottonwood. Julia Page points to something else at the top of the trees.

PAGE: Look at how high all that driftwood and stuff is stacked in those cottonwoods. It was amazing, '96 and '97. You'd come down here and you couldn't believe how much water was coming down this river.

HOYT: In the spring of 1996, then again in 1997, record floods raged for more than a month when the river, bloated with melting snow, roared out of Yellowstone National Park. Gravel-filled waves dug entirely new river channels, swallowing houses, forest, and pastures. Montana hydrologist and environmental consultant Scott Gillilian says the floods were dramatic, but not that unusual for rivers like the Yellowstone.

GILLLILIAN: Gravel bed rivers don't have predictable boundaries. They scroll across the landscape, form new channels, abandon other ones. That's the natural behavior of a river, and thereby that much more difficult to try to control and engineer.

(Bulldozer motor)

HOYT: As we float around a bend we pass a bulldozer digging up cottonwood trees at the river's edge. The Paradise Valley, as this is called, is in the midst of a building boom. And in order to protect their investments, newcomers have been bulldozing trees and hauling in rock, trying to keep the floods away with levees, berms, and rip rap.

GILLILIAN: There are people moving in with enough wealth that they can afford million-dollar river training projects.

PAGE: It's not going to work in any kind of long term sense, and it does such harm to the river.

HOYT: The rip wrap is destroying important fish spawning areas, and damaging cottonwood forest that border the Yellowstone River, where song birds rest on their migration from South America. Susan Leonard, a biologist with the Montana Audubon Society, says that as the river is hemmed in from its natural floodplain, the vital cottonwood forests are disappearing.

LEONARD: Flood control structures prevent a lot of the deposition that cottonwoods need. They need to find silt soil and sand that comes downriver, and adequate moisture in order to germinate. Cottonwoods support more species of breeding birds than all other western habitats combined.

HOYT: And it's not just the environment that's suffering.

(River sound into sound of truck rolling on the road)

HOYT: A few miles south of Livingstone, rancher Jerry O'Hair gestures from behind the wheel of his white Dodge truck as he passes through a pasture. His family has lived along the Yellowstone for 125 years. He says he's never seen anything like what he calls the “vicious” floods of 1996 and '97.

O'HAIR: That rock bank that you're looking at over there is where the river cut a channel through when the river finally abated and went down along in August. The estimate was almost two thirds of the river was running down through Spring Creek.

HOYT: The river had jumped to a new channel, right through Jerry O'Hair's ranch. Over the next 2 years he spent nearly a million dollars in a largely losing battle to protect his pastures from the river.

O'HAIR: I hired a couple of bulldozers and put those in here, and they worked for 2 weeks 24 hours a day, and they were working in water and mud and fighting the river at that time. And that's when this road was built in here, the early part of '97.

HOYT: The road acts as a new levee and keeps the river at bay, for now. Jerry O'Hair blames the recent floods on the fires in Yellowstone National Park 11 years ago, which he says reduced the forest's ability to hold water. But many others say the major reason is all the impoundments built to protect new houses in the floodplain. In the 2 years between 1995 and '97, the Army Corps of Engineers issued 82 permits for riverbank barriers along the upper Yellowstone in Park County. More than twice the number approved in the previous 2 decades. Hydrologist Scott Gillilian says in the past few years, the river became caught up in a vicious cycle. Every flood control structure just increased the chances of flooding downstream.

GILLILIAN: You could look down on this piece of river and what you essentially had going on was dueling bulldozers. People frantically building a dike and levee on this left bank when in fact building that levee and dike put a great deal of pressure on the right bank around the corner, so those people, to defend their property, started throwing up a large levee and dike.

HOYT: So, this stretch of the Yellowstone is becoming less and less like a natural river, and more and more like a fire hose. And it's not just environmentalists that are concerned. Park County commissioners tried to pass a tough new zoning plan, and floated a flood mitigation proposal that would have strictly regulated further development on the floodplain. But both plans met strong opposition from land owners like rancher Jerry O'Hair.

O'HAIR: I can't tell my neighbor what to do or how to sell his property. It's the American way. It's the capitalistic way. When you pass rules and regulations that stop people from protecting their private property, then you're going down the other road. That's the way it is across the water in the Soviet Union.

HOYT: Ranchers are facing low commodity prices, and selling land for development sometimes is the only way to make a profit. The dilemma has left Park County Commissioner Dan Gudibeer almost despairing for a solution.

GUDIBEER: I guess you could say that the financial situation is the worst enemy, you know. People want that right to see and do what they want to do. But maybe we're destroying our history in doing so.

HOYT: The state and Federal governments are worried, too. The Montana legislature and the US Geological Survey have funded a study of the problem. And Montana's governor has created a task force on it. But it may be 3 years before the task force even issues a report. Meanwhile, houses and river barriers will continue to be built, and environmentalists like Dennis Glickman of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition are looking for ways to break the cycle.

(Running water)

GLICKMAN: One of the reasons that we feel like we need a time out is not just to protect the river and the riparian habitat, but basically to protect private property from the effects of what other private property owners have done. Or what the state or communities have done. Some of their bridges and some of the rip rapping they've done have backed up water and flooded other people's property.

HOYT: Recently, Mr. Glickman's group filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for reviewing construction on the Yellowstone and other rivers. They say the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not studying the cumulative effects of river barriers before approving permits. The case is awaiting its first hearing. And meanwhile, the Army Corps says it will continue to issue permits.

(Bird calls, flowing water)

HOYT: Back on the Yellowstone, Dennis Glickman says it would be a tragedy if nothing were done soon to stop the piecemeal destruction of the river. Despite all the problems, he says, it's not too late.

GLICKMAN: It's really America's last best river, and I think we have a tremendous opportunity here to protect what's left and even restore a lot of what has been damaged. And I really hope that we as citizens of Montana have the guts to move forward and do that.

HOYT: For Living On Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt on Montana's Yellowstone River.



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