Armed with a new statewide poll showing overwhelming public support for protecting Montana’s rivers, a coalition of groups said Wednesday they would seek something that hasn’t been done in almost 40 years – gaining permanent protection for more of the state’s waterways.

Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, said those rivers include Rock Creek, the North Fork of the Blackfoot River, Monture Creek, and Fish Creek and its tributaries.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people in public meetings that there is great interest in protecting those,” Bosse said. “It will be really important to gather more input from local people before we put forth any proposals.”

Montanans for Healthy Rivers, a coalition of individuals, business owners, sportsmen, farmers, ranchers, agency officials, land trusts and conservation groups, commissioned the poll of Montana voters that was conducted Feb. 20-23.

The results, Bosse said, “cut across party, gender and age lines” to show that:

• More than four in five voters classify rivers as “very important” to Montana’s economy and way of life.

• Almost 90 percent would like to see the number of protected rivers in Montana maintained or increased.

• Two-thirds would look more favorably on political candidates who support new river protections.

• Three-quarters support the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.

Montana has four areas protected by the act: a 150-mile stretch of the Upper Missouri, and the three forks of the upper Flathead River.

They gained protection in 1976, when Max Baucus was still in the U.S. House of Representatives.

No Montana rivers have been added since.

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“We’ve heard three major themes in our outreach,” Bosse, who is based in Bozeman, said. “First, Montanans are worried about the impact that increasing development is having on our rivers. Second, we like the idea of permanently protecting more public lands rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. And third, communities and riverside landowners would like to do more incentive-based river conservation projects on private lands, but the funding isn’t there.”

To that end, Bosse said successfully including what’s known as the Northern Rockies Headwaters Extreme Weather Mitigation Provision in the Water Resources Development Act – the Senate bill has it, the version introduced in the House doesn’t – will be a key to protecting Montana rivers when they depart public lands.

“Rivers don’t lose their value when they flow through private property,” Bosse said. “The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is great for protecting rivers as they flow through public lands, but the Northern Rockies provision would provide tens of millions of dollars to protect and enhance riverside areas on private lands.”

Montanans for Healthy Rivers “came together four years ago,” according to a news release announcing poll results, “to explore bold and innovative ways that the state could protect its last best free-flowing rivers at a watershed scale.”

Bosse said it has focused its efforts on the Flathead and Clark Fork rivers, the headwaters of the Missouri River and the Upper Yellowstone.

The coalition has met with almost 100 organizations, state and federal agencies and Indian tribes, and in October hosted public meetings in Missoula, Whitefish, Bozeman and Red Lodge to solicit further input.

It commissioned Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates of California, also known as FM3, to conduct the poll that showed strong support for protecting the state’s rivers. The survey interviewed 400 Montana voters, and has a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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