Last Undammed River

The Yellowstone is today the last great western river still undammed. This fact is no accident of history, writes William L. Lang. The river has had its defenders since at least the 1920s, when irrigators downstream wanted to dam the river at its outlet from Yellowstone Lake. No doubt because of the new National Park's unique status as the world's first, river-lovers found their cause successfully campioned by early environmentalists throughout the United States.1

The 1970s brought further threats to the river. Efforts to impound the Yellowstone's waters behind a dam at Allenspur Gap, near Livingston, were turned aside when Montanans chose the Yellowstone's world-class trout fishery over the needs of coal-generating plants, the heart-stopping beauty of Paradise Valley over the desires of irrigators, and a free-flowing Yellowstone over the demands of flood control.

The most recent battle over the Yellowstone's fate involves ever more difficult choices. In the late 1990s, landowners along the river, fearful of severe flooding due to record snowpack, requested an unprecedented number of permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to build flood control structures along the Yellowstone's banks. These concrete and stone structures, meant to stabilize the riverbank, appear to have unintended negative effects on the riparian or streambank habitat, causing, in the words of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), a "steady and rapid erosion of the natural qualities of the river."

A recent study by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirmed that trout populations had dropped nearly 60 percent in the most extensively riprapped sections of the river. Concerned over these losses and over the possibility that, because of a lack of planning, the structures could actually cause worse flooding downstream, the GYC and four other groups have filed suit to enjoin the Corps of Engineers from granting further permits until the effects of "canalizing" the river could be studied fully. In May 2000, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Corps had fallen far short of its obligation to protect the river.2

The Yellowstone has recently been named by the conservation group, American Rivers, as number five on its list of America's ten most endangered rivers. Only through careful stewardship will this beautiful but damaged river remain, in the words of the Sierra Club's Kris Prinzing, as the "last river in America that Lewis and Clark would still recognize."

1. William L. Lang, "Saving the Yellowstone," Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 35 (Autumn 1985), 87–90.

2. I am indebted to Dennis Glick, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, at for information about current threats to the Yellowstone's health, and the GYC's ongoing efforts to protect the river.

Related Reading

William L. Bryan, Jr, Montana's Indians, Yesterday and Today (Second edition; Helena, MT: American and World Geographic Publishing, 1996).

Steve Chapple, Kayaking the Full Moon: A Journey Down the Yellowstone River to the Soul of Montana (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

C. Adrian Heidenreich, "The Native Americans' Yellowstone," Montana The Magazine of Western History 35 (Autumn 1985), 2–17.

John C. Hudson, "Main Streets of the Yellowstone Valley: Town-building along the Northern Pacific in Montana," Montana The Magazine of Western History, 35 (Autumn 1985), 56–67.

Dean Krakel, Downriver: A Yellowstone Journey (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987).

William E. Lass, "Steamboats on the Yellowstone," Montana The Magazine of Western History, 35 (Autumn 1985), 26–41.

Bill Schneider, Montana's Yellowstone River (Helena, MT: Montana Magazine, 1985).

Carroll Van West, Capitalism on the Frontier: The Transformation of Billings and the Yellowstone Valley in the 19th Century (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993).

———, "Coulson and the Clark's Fork Bottom: The Economic Structure of a Pre-Railroad Community, 1874–1881," Montana The Magazine of Western History, 35 (Autumn 1985), 42–55.