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It’s spring in Montana with summer coming fast on its heels. Streams are beginning to swell with the life-giving waters of last winter’s snowpack; cottonwood seeds drift on afternoon air currents to land on those rising waters, which will carry them to fertile soil. Montana’s population rises too, as residents and visitors alike put away the skis and prepare for what many predict to be record-breaking tourist numbers in our parks and other wild places.

For the nearly 900 members of FOAM — the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana — this is what we’ve waited for all winter. We’re ready, and we’re excited. But in the wake of a year of profound, societal changes, we’re also thinking about the future. Ours and our rivers’.

Our future is inexorably entangled with that of the rivers. Economically, we rely on clean, healthy rivers to provide the iconic experiences that draw our clients from all over the world. Whether it’s the scream of a reel as a Madison brown trout peels line away, or the humble beauty of a native cutthroat caught and released on a secret stream, there’s a reason so many come to Montana. Yet these are only the most obvious ways in which our rivers fuel our $7.1 billion outdoor recreation industry. For all the cars rented to view wildlife in Yellowstone, unforgettable dinners enjoyed overlooking iconic mountain views, and equipment purchased from local businesses, rivers are the lifeblood that keep the environment healthy. In doing so, they keep our economy healthy.

Of course, this is only half the story. Like many of our colleagues, we do what we do because we love rivers. We love spending our days the water. Perhaps most of all, we love sharing that joy with others.

For all these reasons and more, FOAM supports the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act (MHLA). This landmark, locally-supported legislation would protect a landscape worth of rivers in the Greater Yellowstone and Smith River systems by designating them as Wild and Scenic, the strongest form of federal river protection in the United States. Doing so will help us better understand the health of our rivers as well as respond to any threats that might surface tomorrow or ten years from now. Equally as important, Wild and Scenic designations will help raise awareness about the quality of our waters and the pressing need to protect them.

Each of the 17 rivers and streams in the MHLA are unique, and we each fall in love with something different. For some, it’s the sweeping, mountain fringed views of the Yellowstone River’s Paradise Valley. For others, it’s the roar of whitewater above an isolated hole on the Boulder. That is part of what makes the MHLA’s big picture approach so powerful. Each waterway is a piece of a larger, connected system. If we secure enough of that system to keep it whole, we protect something greater than the sum of its parts. It is vital that we do so for fish, wildlife, and people alike.

Our river systems, as we currently know them, won’t last if we don’t act now. Many who visit Montana’s rivers see them as boundless, pristine resources. But those of us who live and work on the water every day see a more complete story. Indeed, we have much to lose. Between rising human pressures, lower late season flows, uncertain snowpack, and increasingly frequent algae blooms, our rivers are changing fast. These changes are too far-reaching to answer with anything less than what the MHLA proposes. We must look beyond our own personal impacts and act together to achieve the greater collective impact our rivers need.

FOAM calls upon those chosen to represent Montanans — Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines, and Representative Matt Rosendale — to reintroduce and pass the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act today. We also call on all guides and outfitters across the state, whether they work on rivers or not, to take up this call and lead by example. We all rely, directly or otherwise, on public resources. It’s on us to protect them.

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Michael A. Bias is the executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana. Jason Fleury is the president of the organization’s board of directors.

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