After a 40-year love affair with the Yellowstone River, Tom Hinz doesn’t expect to return the river to what it once was. He just wants to protect its ability to misbehave.
“The nature of this river is not to behave,” he said Monday. “The nature of this river is to be wild, really wild.”
Hinz was talking on the river bank on a glistening spring afternoon near Reed Point. Across the river, he could see piles of stones dumped along the river bank to keep it in place as the water flows toward a downstream bridge.
Such projects are common and inevitable along a river that helps life, including human life, flourish along its nearly 565-mile course from Gardiner to the Missouri River. But as director of program development for Montana Aquatic Resources Services Inc. in Bozeman, Hinz works to offset such projects by finding landowners willing to grant permanent channel migration easements that allow the river to run wild over their land.
The idea is to let the river continue to do its natural job of sweeping across the river valley as seasons and years go by, leaving behind fertile bottomlands where cottonwoods and willow trees prosper and a wide variety of fish, birds and animals make their homes.
That, in turn, helps replenish groundwater and allows sediments to sift downstream, providing habitat for paddlefish and pallid sturgeon, which like their water murky.
“If the water clears up, they’ll cease to be here,” Hinz said.
In addition, research at the University of Idaho indicates that high-water flows are occurring earlier in the year on the Yellowstone, leaving less water available in the summer and fall, when demand is greatest. The floodplain acts as a sponge, soaking up water during high-water season and maintaining the river’s flow during low seasons.
Hinz said people should keep in mind three main points about the river:
♦ The need is now in terms of conserving water in the floodplain. With climate change and less predictable water sources, it’s critical to preserve clean water.
♦ The economic value of the river goes beyond providing bottled water, or a means of cooling sugar beet or energy plants. As more and more of the riverbank is eroded or protected and trees are cut down, the importance of keeping the water right where it is – in the river – increases.
♦ The Yellowstone should be conserved as a heritage that can be passed along to future generations of Montanans. The fact that the Yellowstone is the nation’s longest free-flowing river is often cited, but familiarity does not diminish the fact’s importance.
“That’s a big deal,” Hinz said. “That’s a really big deal.”
Hinz’s own history with the Yellowstone goes back to 1972, a few years after he moved to Bozeman from Minnesota. He worked on a project involving the river ecology of Canada geese, earned a degree in wildlife management and held a variety of jobs in conservation, finally retiring from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in 2013.
Along the way, he encountered the river in many of its moods, from early-spring ice jams to high-water seasons that once led him to tear a hole the size of a bowling ball in a boat that hung up on a barely submerged fence.
“This river is kind of like a sleeping tiger,” he said, lovely in repose but terrifying when aroused.
He said he has spent hundreds if not thousands of days on the river.
“That muddy water got in my blood somehow,” he said.
He also has seen the river change. Much of the river has been diverted for human uses, and about 40 percent of the Yellowstone’s floodplain has been developed in some way. As of 2014, more than 135 miles of river bank was protected by some kind of “armoring,” mostly riprap made up of old cars, stones or concrete.
So it was natural that he would be drawn to Montana Aquatic Resources Services, which earned nonprofit status in 2012. When a 12-inch ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured near Laurel in 2011, part of the remediation money went to MARS to purchase channel migration easements. When the BNSF Railway had to repair tracks damaged by the river in 2011, it turned to MARS for required mitigation under the Clean Water Act.
MARS also has worked with the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, the Montana Land Reliance and other groups involved in conservation. In addition to its work on the Yellowstone River, it has done work on so-called “prairie potholes,” or wetlands caused by soil depressions in northeast Montana, and its four-person staff has worked on mitigation projects in the Missouri, Sun and Smith river watersheds.
MARS’ first channel migration easement was approved in February by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Under the easement, the Navratil family in Richland County granted a permanent easement on nearly 90 acres of their land along the Yellowstone.
The easement was opposed by some neighbors and by state legislators Scott Staffanson and Matthew Rosendale, who, as the Williston (N.D.) Herald put it, “criticized the program for paying someone to not do something they aren’t going to do anyway.”
The commission approved the project after funding was obtained through the Western Area Power Administration. The easement protects the property from bank stabilization projects, commercial development, dumping, billboards and other uses.
The project took about two years to put together, Hinz said, adding that on the next one, “I think I’ll make fewer mistakes.”
But he said that every easement is different and all have potential hang-ups.
“I’ve been told they all have some hair on them,” he said.
MARS is talking now with other landowners along the Yellowstone, with interest spurred in part by news of the completion of the first easement. But the idea of channel migration easements is unfamiliar and unappealing to most people.
“You just keep digging until somebody sticks their head up and says, ‘I’m interested,’” Hinz said.
Some landowners are concerned that easements may hurt property values or place a cloud on their land title. They also are concerned about binding future generations to their decision.
“I’m not trying to portray these people as money grubbers because they’re not,” Hinz said. But the easements have to make economic sense to be workable, he said.
In most cases, he added, it isn’t economically feasible to remove existing riprap, such as old cars that frequently line the riverbank as property owners attempt to stop erosion. MARS has removed no “Detroit riprap” yet, Hinz said.
It remains unclear how many landowners will ultimately be willing to grant channel migration easements and whether that will be enough to make a difference in the river’s future.
“We’d just kind of like to hold the line,” Hinz said. Getting all of the easements in place will take longer than he will be working, he said.
“When we’re done,” he said, “we’ll let you know.”
This piece first appeared in Last Best News.