GLENDIVE - On Friday, August 28, city and county leaders, economic development experts, and river users representing the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition joined Governor Steve Bullock as the governor announced his intention to fund improved public access and recreational infrastructure along the Lower Yellowstone River.
Under sunny skies, the group gathered on the Historic Bell Bridge over the Yellowstone River. Governor Bullock heard from spokespeople from the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition before offering support for the project.
“In Montana, we have a special appreciation for our public lands and it’s our responsibility to pay it forward to make sure that all Montanans can enjoy our public lands for generations to come,” said Governor Bullock. “We have a tremendous opportunity to improve public access along a large stretch of the Lower Yellowstone River, and I look forward to seeing the coalition’s vision of improved river access and recreation realized and passed on to our kids and grandkids.”
The governor announced that he is asking Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to identify $4 million in general license funding that could be applied to the creation and improvement of numerous recreational resources along the river. This investment could be matched by other sources of state and federal funding, which would bring the total investment in new recreational infrastructure along the Lower Yellowstone to $8 million. This commitment is an important first step in securing funding for recreation in eastern Montana, but it will require the Montana Legislature to approve the use of these funds in the next legislative session which begins in January 2021.
This infrastructure would include boat ramps, campsites, restroom facilities, access roads, parks, and hiking trails along approximately 170 river miles between Hysham and Sidney. Currently, there are limited opportunities for public recreation along this stretch. Much of the existing infrastructure is in need of maintenance, and there are several 40-mile stretches of river along which access is prohibitively difficult.
“We have a real chance to make the Lower Yellowstone more accessible, which would be a tremendous benefit to the residents of Eastern Montana,” said Christine Whitlatch, a representative of the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition, the group that organized the event. “This is an incredible opportunity to eliminate these large access gaps and make it easier for folks to boat, fish, and camp on the Lower Yellowstone. Improving our recreational infrastructure would boost our quality of life, attract more visitors, and strengthen Eastern Montana’s economy - it’s really a win for everyone.”
Improving recreational access along the Lower Yellowstone would also have a positive impact on Eastern Montana’s economy by increasing the number of visitors who come to the region to recreate. An increase in visitors would bring widespread economic benefits to communities across Eastern Montana, according to economic development and tourism professionals.
“In Montana, domestic travelers spend about $152 per day on trips that average about 4.5 days long,” said Brenda Maas, marketing director for Visit Southeast Montana regional tourism, citing data collected by the University of Montana’s Institute for Recreation and Tourism Research. “We also know that in our post-pandemic world, Americans seek vacations with family and prioritize enjoying nature while avoiding crowds. That puts the communities along the Lower Yellowstone River Corridor in an ideal position to expand this revenue stream while enjoying this amazing asset that connects us all.”
The potential benefits of attracting more visitors were echoed by Beth Epley, executive director of Eastern Plains Economic Development Corporation.
“When visitors come, they don’t just camp along the river or go boating for the day,” she said. “They stay in hotels, they eat at restaurants, they buy fuel and supplies. In small communities like ours, local economies are strongly interconnected and interdependent, and bringing more people into these communities to spend money would have widespread positive impacts.”
Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison summed up the importance of improving public access and recreational access along the Lower Yellowstone.
“Montana has always been an outdoor recreation paradise, not only for Montanans, but for the millions of visitors that come to our state every year,” he said. “The Lower Yellowstone River has always been one of our hidden secrets, underdeveloped and underused. Improving public access and infrastructure along the Lower Yellowstone will open it up to so many more people, activities, and possibilities.”
The Glendive event built on momentum generated in July, when the coalition hosted state legislators on flights over the Lower Yellowstone. Lower Yellowstone River Coalition spokesperson and former BLM state director Mike Penfold showed off the beauty, historic and cultural sites, and recreational opportunities along the Lower Yellowstone, while also pointing out the significant public access gaps and lack of outdoor recreation infrastructure.
The coalition received many thoughtful and positive comments about the project. Fish, Wildlife, and Parks also hosted a group of legislators on a bout tour of the river, where they shared similar support for the coalition’s goals.