This past August I watched a group of 16- and 17-year-old Montanans struggle against headwinds, strong currents and rapids as they paddled packrafts down the Yellowstone River. It would be impossible for me to capture in words the pride and accomplishment those young people felt as they made camp along the river that evening.

The connection the students forged with the river is incredibly strong; the experience of paddling over 100 miles on a river tethered them to the landscape in transformative ways. They became stewards of the river. As one student from Three Forks articulated: “Experiencing it makes me want to save it for more people; I want it (the river) to be there for more people to see.”

She is right. We need to act now to protect Montana’s wild waterways so others can enjoy these rivers and streams.

I am the co-founder and program director for the Montana Wilderness School (MWS). We provide empowering expeditionary wilderness courses to youth that foster personal growth and cultivate a conservation ethic through connecting with remote landscapes and wild places. Every summer, MWS leads young Montanans down our state’s beautiful rivers, like the Wild and Scenic section of the Missouri and the free-flowing Yellowstone.

Now is the time for us to think deeply about the what we want to leave for future generations. We have a chance to invest in Montana by preserving one of our state’s most valuable natural resources — our cold, free-flowing rivers and streams — for the future.

Growing up in Montana, some of my most formative experiences were on rivers. These impactful adventures on the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River shaped my life and my career path. I was lucky — I benefited from the fact that these amazing rivers are already protected.

Now is the time for us to pay it forward. That is why I support the Montana Headwater Security Act. If passed, the act will create new Wild and Scenic River protections for some of southwest Montana’s most important headwater rivers and streams.

Wild and Scenic designation would protect rivers like the Yellowstone, Smith, the North Fork for the Blackfoot and others to keep them free from dams, maintain water quality and preserve what makes them unique forever. It does this without threatening water rights, recreation, private property or taxpayer dollars.

The Montana Headwater Security Act is an investment in Montana’s water, securing critical habitat for fish and wildlife and ensuring that future generations have opportunities to enjoy and connect with our wild waterways. Passing it will protect the rivers, guarantee a future of adventure for our youth, and preserve the opportunity for us all to explore the wild waters of Montana.

Please join me in asking our legislators to introduce and pass the Montana Headwater Security Act. Simply call and tell them who you are and why they need to introduce (and pass) the act. Reach U.S. Sen. Jon Tester at 202-224-2644, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines at 202-224-2651 and U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte at 202-225-3211.

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Josh Olsen is a co-founder and program director of the Montana Wilderness School.

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