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U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus was a freshman congressman in 1976 when he pushed to get several Montana waterways designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers. In an emailed interview, Baucus recalled how the legislation came about and what the future of river protection holds.

1) When the Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation was getting started, what issues or concerns did you have to resolve to build support for designations? Who was opposed to WSR and how did you persuade them to change their minds?

I’ve devoted my career in large part to protecting our rivers, wilderness and environment. When I first ran for the House of Representatives in 1974, I promised to protect the Flathead River Basin. In 1976, as a newly elected member of the House, I spearheaded efforts to protect 368 miles of the Flathead and Missouri Rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. This wasn’t easy, and I was new to this kind of challenge. Looking back, I feel like I went through a buzzsaw from the opposition! But I pushed on, and the fight was worth it. This was perhaps the beginning of a much larger effort to protect our rivers, wilderness, and environment. That’s so important, because we Montanans love the outdoors. It’s in our blood. We like to hunt, fish, and go hiking, and enjoy the wide open space.

Everyone knows the book “A River Runs Through It,” which features our Blackfoot River. In the preface to this book, Norman Maclean thanked my parents Jean and John, and wrote about the ranch where I grew up, where the Blackfoot runs. My passion for nature – and knowing just how much we depend on this land – started on that ranch. That’s why I was so proud to be a part of the Blackfoot Challenge. I learned then that while leadership is important at the top, it’s just as important to meet directly with everyday people and work through our challenges together – from the bottom up. I remember one young Fish and Wildlife Service officer won over some of the landowners on the Blackfoot Challenge by spending his nights drinking beer with them over a couple of years.

2) The qualities of Wilderness and the ways people use Wilderness have changed a lot since the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed – leading to tension about how we manage or add to those lands today. Has the effort to protect wild rivers undergone a similar evolution, and what river qualities do you believe are most important to protect now?

My work to protect rivers is just a part of a larger effort to protect our wilderness and environment. I’m also very proud spearheading the Montana Legacy Project which helps conserve more than 310,000 acres of forestland, wildlife habitat, and water resources near Glacier Park. These efforts have had a big impact on jobs and related industries. According to a study by the Outdoor Industry Associations, 64,000 Montanans are directly employed in the outdoor industry. Every year, outdoor recreation generates $5.8 billion in consumer spending in Montana. I want to see these efforts continue, as we protect the land and natural resources we’re so proud of as Montanans.

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3) Have you seen river-protection examples elsewhere in the world, pro or con, that the U.S. could learn from as it considers new additions to the WSR list?

I can tell you from my experience working as the U.S. Ambassador to China that the impact of climate change and development on our natural resources is evident throughout the world. The Mekong river basin, including the upper reaches in China, is just one example where we are working hard to bring scientists and policymakers together to address development-related degradation of an important river system. Our expertise on water resource management is sought after around the world. Drawing from our experiences back home, including the Wild and Scenic River legislation, we work with river basin authorities around the world to improve water management and encourage efficient, sustainable water use practices. As I like to say, we need to leave this world in better shape than we found it in. And everyone – whether you’re from Missoula or Beijing – has an important role to play in that.

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