Cottonwoods on the Missouri River

photo: Missouri River cottonwoods

This view of the Missouri River in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles upstream from Fort Peck Reservoir in eastern Montana, illustrates Ms. Manning's point. The cottonwoods across the river to the right appear to be "senior citizens" of the species, standing in orderly rows parallel to the water's edge where they took root at the brinks of spring floods some sixty to eighty years ago. Between the trees and the water's edge today is an expanse of brush trimmed with a margin of gravely riverbank only a few yards wide. A similar contrast may be seen in the background on the opposite side of the river.

Visions and values change. The first major dam on the Missouri River was built in 1892 at Black Eagle Falls, nearly 200 miles upstream from this point. Eight more mainstem dams followed—in 1910, 1911, 1915, 1918, 1930, 1940, 1958 and 1965—within the 210 miles between the Great Falls and the Missouri's headwaters at Three Forks, plus one dam on the Beaverhead, one on the Marias, and one on the Milk, each partly if not solely for the purpose of water conservation and flood control. Meanwhile, hundreds of smaller earthen dams were built on farms and ranches along the Missouri's tributaries to impound water for agricultural use. Aside from all that, its main channel was laboriously manicured—"cleaned up"—for the convenience, safety and economy of commercial steamboat traffic during the middle half of the nineteenth century.

As much as we might wish to idealize, to romanticize the federally designated Wild and Scenic Missouri River, it scarcely represents what the Corps of Discovery saw in 1805-06. It is still scenically beautiful, but that scenery is by no means as dense and varied as it was back then.