Addressing public access gaps and improving infrastructure along the river are top priorities
GLENDIVE - A group of eastern Montana residents has come together to expand outdoor recreation opportunities along the Lower Yellowstone River with the goal of boosting the tourism potential for communities along the river corridor between Hysham and Fairview.
The Lower Yellowstone River Coalition was recently founded by a collection of tourism officials, economic development advocates, river users, and other local citizens. The group has identified four significant public access gaps along the river that severely limit potential for fishing, camping, and floating.
They have also documented multiple locations along this 163-mile stretch of river where traditional public access can be reopened, where existing public access can be improved, and where new camping and river access could be situated closer to communities along the river.
“Outdoor recreation along the Yellowstone has not been promoted, nor seen its potential fully developed east of Billings and it’s time to improve that situation for the benefit of our communities, residents and visitors,” said Christine Whitlatch, an eastern Montana Ambassador for the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project now residing in Billings and one of the coalition’s founding members. “Eastern Montana can enjoy an even better quality of life and increase tourism revenue across the board if we can build out our public access infrastructure and make it easier for people to enjoy the river. Life is integrally intertwined with the river, agriculture and tourism in this part of Montana and it is important we provide opportunities that honor all the stakeholders needs along the river.”
The coalition is working on a proposal that would ask Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to designate the river corridor as a recreational management unit. The designation would allow the agency to pursue new and improve existing recreation opportunities along the river corridor including new river access and fishing sites, boat ramps, campsites, restrooms, and possible state park designations.
“It’s important that the Lower Yellowstone work for everybody whether you irrigate or use it for outdoor recreation,” said Ruth Baue, a Treasure County Commissioner. “Improvements and increased public access will encourage more visitors to our area which can increase commerce in our local communities.”
Before submitting the proposal to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks later this year, the coalition is conducting local conversations in communities along the river corridor between Hysham and Sidney to help identify the most pressing opportunities.
Kali Godfrey, a city councilor from Sidney, says she became involved in the effort because the tourism potential for the lower Yellowstone River is still largely untapped and the clear health benefits of being outdoors.
“This is an incredible opportunity to boost tourism and capitalize on the health benefits associated with outdoor recreation,” said Godfrey, “Eastern Montana has an opportunity to capture more outdoor recreation and tourism and create more opportunities for its citizens to spend time outdoors on the river.”
Last year, the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development held listening sessions in eastern Montana to discuss opportunities to turn around the region’s shrinking bed tax revenue. Among other things, participants said eastern Montana is challenged by a lack of public access opportunities and public amenities that attract outdoor recreation and visitors to other parts of the state.
The Lower Yellowstone River Coalition acknowledges building new amenities and public access on the river will require funding. The group is keeping a hopeful eye on the progress of the Great American Outdoor Act as a potential revenue source for the required work, but plans to pursue new and improved recreation and access opportunities along the river corridor regardless of the Act’s progress through Congress.
“Of course the Great American Outdoors Act would be a tremendous boost for this project, but we’re committed to identifying any funding opportunities that would help make it a reality,” said Brenda Maas, marketing director of Visit Southeast Montana. “Montanans have shown that they’re overwhelmingly in favor of securing and expanding public access, and this is a great opportunity for Montana to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to making sure our outdoor resources are available to everyone.”