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GALLATIN GATEWAY — The Gallatin River snaked behind Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester Tuesday afternoon as he introduced a bill to permanently protect hundreds of miles of rivers and streams across southwestern Montana.

Tester and conservation advocates presented the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act in front of the Montana TroutChasers Lodge and Fly Fishing Outfitter here. The bill would designate 336 miles of rivers and streams in the Lewis and Clark and Custer Gallatin National Forests as wild and scenic.

“This place has been discovered. It’s going to continue to have more and more people,” Tester said. “There’s going to continue to be more pressure put on air and water every day, and now we’re really past the time to do something about it.”

If the bill passes, federal agencies will be required to preserve water quality, free-flowing conditions and certain “outstandingly remarkable values” on dozens of miles of the Gallatin, Madison, Yellowstone, Boulder, Smith and Stillwater rivers and on sections of an additional 17 creeks.

The agencies would be prohibited from issuing new permits or licenses for projects that could harm the designated waters. New dams and energy, floodplain, mining and water diversion projects that could degrade the waters or the areas immediately surrounding them would not be allowed to move forward.

A number of groups support the bill, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, American Rivers, American Whitewater, the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Gallatin River Task Force.

“There are more and more people using Montana’s rivers every year, but there’s a limited supply of healthy, intact rivers,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers. “We need to protect them now rather than wait.”

Bosse said groups involved with Montanans for Healthy Rivers — the coalition of conservation and recreation groups, landowners, businesses and others who’ve touted the bill — have held over 300 meetings with Montanans over the last 10 years.

Since gathering support for the bill at business roundtables, public forums, and meetings with tribes, the coalition gathered 3,000 official endorsements.

“I think Montanans appreciate that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was conceived in Montana in the 1950s, though it passed in 1968” Bosse said. “Tester wants to bring it home again.”

Montana has 388 miles of wild and scenic rivers. This bill would double that.

The last time a wild and scenic river or stream was added in Montana was in 2018 on East Rosebud Creek. With that exception, no designation has occurred in the state since 1976.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of Montana,” Charles Drimal, conservation coordinator at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said at the event. “Montanans know collectively protecting our economy, environment, and quality of life go hand in hand.”

Bosse and Tester both said they are hopeful the bill will receive bipartisan support from other members of Montana’s congressional delegation.

“It’s not going to pass if it doesn’t get bipartisan support,” Tester said. “It’s a piece of legislation that basically should have no political boundaries. It’s about our kids and our grandkids.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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