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Dismal Swamps or Treasured Wetlands?

by Alan Kesselheim photography by thomas lee

Settlers saw them as lands to drain and turn productive. These days they are touted as habitats worthy of preservation. In fact, some call wetlands and riparian zones the coral reefs of the West. So which is it, and why should we care?

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This is about water in our urban core, says Maddy Pope, project coordinator for the Trust for Public Land. Here, she waves to an arriving friend at a wetlands restoration project near Bozeman.

addy Pope is giving a tour of the old Story Mill District on the outskirts of Bozeman. It is early spring, the day trying to decide seasons. The ground is thawing, but snow lingers. Ice breaks underfoot. A pair of mallards burst from a hidden puddle. They seem lonely, waiting for company. The ground is hummocky, sponge-like. Last years cattails crowd a drainage ditch, full of red-winged blackbirds. Abandoned farm buildings decay on the site. A flicker calls from the trees. Pope leads the way to a small pond, only visible when she gets close. Three deer were killed by mountain lions on this property this winter, she says. And yet, the Food Bank building is in plain sight, the back of a storage unit complex butts up against the property, interstate traffic is both visible and audible. Story Mill was once the economic hub of Bozeman. It had its own railroad spur, a complex of grain elevators, a bustling livestock auction yard. Nelson Story and his descendants developed the property and oversaw a vibrant era of growth in the Gallatin Valley, between 1880 and 1950. The center of their empire was right here. Part of that development involved improving this wet section of land nestled in the headwaters of the East Gallatin River drainage. Fill was trucked in for an access road and for pads under buildings. This small pond was excavated and bermed. A drainage ditch was dug, channeling overflow away to the nearby creek. Water, back then, was more problem than asset. Today the economic focus has shifted elsewhere. The livestock auction yard is a vacant set of rotting corrals. Several grain elevators loom above, silent now, the only movement the flash of pigeons coming and going. Only the Stockyard Caf remains active, now catering its funky atmosphere to an urban breakfast crowd. The railroad right-of-way has become part of the city trail system. Just to the north, what was a densely populated trailer park has been abandoned and cleared, victim of a failed development scheme.

The environmental ethic has changed as well, and Pope is the ambassador of that evolution. She represents the Trust for Public Land, which recently negotiated the purchase of a 64-acre parcel that includes this 10-acre wetland along with the abandoned trailer park land on the north side of the river. This property was heavily impacted by all the historic activity, Pope emphasizes. But you can see how beautiful it is. TPL envisions undoing much of the so-called improvement on the land. Stripping the berm from around the small pond, filling the drainage ditch, allowing overflow water to seep into the surrounding wetland and ground water, doing battle with noxious weeds like the field of tansy next to the storage units, encouraging wildlife with restored habitat. TPL is in the process of proposing a partnership with Bozeman and other entities to create a wetland park here for public use. It would allow for trail connections, says Pope. It might include community gardens next to the Food Bank. We would enhance the stream course. The wetland would also help mitigate flooding and purify ground water. This has the potential to become a real urban oasis for people and wildlife to share. It is not a done deal. The purchase has been made, and funding partnerships are being put in place, but the City of Bozeman has to buy in to incorporating this large park addition. Pope and TPL hope to put the proposal, and their vision, to the Bozeman City Commission in the fall of 2013. We know were competing with other interest groups, from soccer parents who want more fields to folks who want an iceclimbing feature. But we are working to make this an attractive possibility. She turns and surveys the wetland spreading from the small pond, looks out toward the river. The city surrounds her, the sounds of traffic, but you can see the transformation blooming in her expression. Imagine how cool that would be, she says.

Wetlands are the rainforest of the West, says Tom Hinz, coordinator for the Montana Wetlands Legacy Partnership.

The more science we get, the clearer it becomes, Hinz says. Before white settlement, water was abundant. Floodplains were wide, river channels were deep, native forests were thriving, beaver were plentiful. Settlers came in and either drained wetlands for the plow or used them as garbage dumps. Now these

same areas are choked with Russian olive and salt cedar. Beaver are pushed into remnant bits of their former range. Cottonwood bottoms are dying off. Whole valleys are dehydrated. The entire ecology has changed. Farmers and ranchers know that water is critical, Hinz continues, But what often happened was that they put in little dams and ponds, which arent the same as wetlands. They dont support wetland vegetation and dont have the same values for wildlife, insects and fish. They also dont clean the water. Ponds are better than nothing, they do store water and help prevent flooding, but they arent the same. Wetlands and riparian corridors constitute only five percent of our land base, adds Lynda Saul, wetland coordinator with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Yet they support more than 50 percent of wildlife species in greatest need of protection. They are also home to more than 20 percent of all plant species in Montana. Thats why I call them the coral reefs of the West. Despite his bleak assessment, Hinz is surprisingly hopeful. Everyone who drinks water has a stake in this, he says. Attitudes are changing. People are starting to value the benefits of landscape not simply as a resource to be mined, plowed or harvested. There are some really admirable people, from all perspectives, working on this.

Beaver are essential to the health of wetlands. They created this dam in the Teton River west of Choteau.

Conversations About Conservation Take Time

go, so will the state of Montana, he claims. Im working really hard to retain some of the quality of this environment for my daughters and their children. Hinz has been helping with the TPL project in Bozeman, as well as some notable conservation easement and stream restoration efforts in the Madison River Valley.

om Hinz, of the Montana Wetlands Legacy Partnership, puts things more starkly. As wetlands


Moose are often found grazing the willows and grasses of riparian areas.

One of those people is Nathan Korb, with The Nature Conservancy in Helena. Most of Korbs work is concentrated in the Centennial Valley and the upper reaches of the Big Hole River, both regions that boast large tracts of wetland habitat and unbroken landscapes. Korb calls his work science stewardship. He focuses on stream restoration, weed control, fire, grazing. He has spent years on projects working side by side with farmers and ranchers in southwest Montana.

Mostly I just listened to peoples stories. I didnt come in with my plan, my solution.
Its not rocket science, says Korb. Most of it is pretty simple. Fencing a little differently, keeping cattle out of streambeds, eliminating or enlarging culverts, connecting habitat. The challenge is gaining trust. Thats where I succeed or fail. And it takes time and patience. Korb has earned himself a nickname, Willow Man, for his dedication to planting and restoring stands of wetland vegetation. He remembers one day in 1992, during his first summer in the Centennial, when a rancher pulled up in a truck while he was planting willow.

He didnt say anything, Korb remembers. Just sat there looking at me. Finally, he said something about how willow never grew out there and drove off. A couple of months went by. We came across each other again. We had another 30-second conversation about willows. This went on for almost 10 years. Two or three times a year wed nudge the conversation a tiny bit, then wed go off and think about it. Eleven years later that same guy agreed to fence off his streambed to protect willow. He even asked us to enlarge the area. That was a great full circle. But it took a decade. No one knows this lesson better than Tim Swanson, now retired from The Nature Conservancy. Swanson spent the better part of 20 years working with farmers and ranchers in the Centennial and Big Hole valleys. If there is one person who deserves credit for the protection of those sweeping watersheds, it is Swanson. He, too, committed to the patient, long-term approach to developing trust through relationships. I drank a lot of bad coffee around kitchen tables in ranch houses, he laughs. Mostly I just listened to peoples stories.

Facing page: A small frog rests in a cattail stand in a wetland near Bozeman.

I didnt come in with my plan, my solution. I listened to their history, their struggles, their hopes, their visions for the future. Swansons style led to some amazing results. When he started, there were barely 1,000 acres in the entire Centennial in conservation easement. Twenty years later, largely through his efforts, there are more than 60,000 acres held in a variety of easements. Every acre of it is a matter of trust. Everyone is involved, says Swanson. From the owners right down to the individual cowboys. They are all part of it. The Centennial is the largest intact wetland ecosystem in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Swanson says. An amazing place. And all you have to do is pop over Red Rock Pass to Henrys Lake to see the other option. Henrys Lake used to have everything the Centennial hasswans, cranes, loons, stands of willows, beaver. Development changed that forever. Problem is, not everyone has the luxury of that level of patience, and maybe the landscape cant afford that luxury either. If a valley becomes truly dehydrated, and stays that way for several decades, it may never be able to recover, says Hinz. John Dooling, born more than 70 years ago on the family ranch high up the Big Hole River, epitomizes the process. He also personifies an abiding kinship with a landscape. He is within a few miles of the literal headwaters of the Big Hole, better than 7,000 feet high. The Bitterroot Mountains rise to the west.

Bob Sanders, manager of conservation programs, Ducks Unlimited.

Imagine if that were 10,000 acres of redwood forest being clear-cut every year. People would be chaining themselves to trees.
The river bottom spreads wide with willow thickets. A place loud with birds, rich with beaver and moose. Sandhill cranes call from the fields. He is eight miles down a dirt road from Jackson, the nearest town, which is to say that it is really, really quiet, sometimes lonely, and often beautiful beyond words. I guess youd say Im a reactionary conservative, he says. Dooling is a pleasant, soft-spoken man. He doesnt trust government interference. He wouldnt call himself an environmentalist, doesnt think much of ideas like wolf reintroduction. At the same time, he is thoughtful, traditionally conservative, with a cast of mind that embraces taking care of the land. I went away to school, lived out east for a while, went to college. Ive seen a bit of the world. Dooling pauses. Sun reflects off the fields of snow outside. Water drips from the roof. The mountains lift against the western sky, shadows of clouds rippling over them.

We know what we have here, how special it is, he says. We also know that change is inevitable, but I hope this valley can stay what it has always been. Good and open. At first I thought conservation easements would limit us, Dooling says. We were approached in 2004. It was about the Arctic grayling then, and keeping water in the river. It was supposed to be one of those win/win situations. Good for us, good for the fish. Dooling took his time. He drank coffee with Tim Swanson and others. He told stories, talked about the future, was frank about his misgivings. Ranching is a marginal business, Dooling says. You dont take a step like that lightly. Dooling committed to an easement in 2004, and has been working within that framework ever since. Its grown on us, he admits. A lot of neighbors have asked about it. Some have agreed to similar arrangements. In Doolings case, easements havent involved momentous change. We never did tear things up, he says. Mostly, we leave the land alone, let Mother Nature take care of it. We never cleared the willows or drained a lot of pasture. When we put it into easement they told us to just keep doing what weve always done.

Looking East

Facing Page: John Dooling on his ranch west of Jackson, Montana.


eeing is believing, says Bob Sanders, of examples set by people like the Doolings. Sanders is the manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited. There is nothing more powerful than a neighbors example. Sanders is dedicated to solutions involving ranchers and wetlands, particularly in eastern Montana. He oversees more than 500 projects, partnering with a variety of state, federal and tribal agencies, as well as with private landowners. Montana is ground zero for him.
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that land and its water are magnets for the pintails and gadwalls and ruddy ducks who flock north every spring to breed and nest. It supports the pronghorn and owls, the turtles and migrating warblers, the sandhill cranes and Canada geese and avocets.
to plow. You cant really blame them, Sanders continues. Theyre just trying to run a business. He understands, but the thought of losing those CRP lands is what keeps him up at night. There are projections for CRP losses in the tens of millions of acres, nationwide. Were already losing 10,000 acres of native grasslands every year in Montana, he says. Thats ancient, historic soil that goes back to the time of glaciers. No weeds, incredibly diversified. Imagine if that were 10,000 acres of redwood forest being clear-cut every year, he continues. People would be chaining themselves to trees. His motto, says Sanders, is Farm the best, leave the rest. If its marginal ground to begin with, he adds, Why not keep it in pasture? Our data tells us that most of that CRP land is pretty poor for crops. And its more than ducks that suffer when its lost. In addition to wetlands, the surrounding prairie provides food, cover and habitat for many species. This is an ecosystem full of sage grouse, antelope, songbirds, an entire trophic pyramid, from grasshoppers to foxes. Sanders prefers voluntary incentives to keep the environment intact. And when people see that something works, it helps get them to sign on to a program. Lets say we bought some ranch land in Phillips County, he says. Once we buy it, we sell a no-till easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We dig some wells, put in tanks, leave the wetlands alone, and sell it at a reasonable price that the new owner can make pencil out as a cattle operation. Then it sits there as an example every time the neighbors drive past. More important, that land and its water are magnets for the pintails and gadwalls and ruddy ducks who flock north every spring to breed and nest. It supports the pronghorn and owls, the turtles and migrating warblers, the sandhill cranes and Canada geese and avocets. It remains a place loud with the clamor of life, as well as land where people can make a living. Win. Win.


Eared grebes commonly nest along marshy ponds, feeding on aquatic insects and crustaceans.

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Montana is the third largest duck producing state in the Lower 48, he says. Sixty percent of North American ducks produce young in prairie potholes like those in Montana. Thats all due to the fact that we still have intact habitat in the eastern plains. My work has a parallel mission with that of ranchers. The ideal is to create working landscapes for ranchers and functioning homes for wildlife. Sanders work in Montana centers on Blaine, Phillips and Sheridan counties. Much of that country has retained its unbroken character by virtue of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to stop plowing land that is highly susceptible to erosion, and to leave it as pasture. Essentially, the government rents the land from the farmers. But recent budget pressures are threatening the future of that program and high commodity prices are making marginal lands look more attractive. Its a perfect storm, warns Sanders. In Montana alone there are one million acres of land under expiring CRP contracts. Factor in high commodity prices, plus the safety net of crop insurance that guarantees payment even if the crop fails, and its a low-risk equation for farmers tempted

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