Blackfoot River Valley, Montana
Over the last decade, gateway communities have realized that protecting and restoring their local river encourages recreation, connects the community to the river and creates an economic engine for the region. To illustrate the benefits communities have discovered by protecting and restoring local rivers, American Rivers developed a series of case studies highlighting gateway communities and how they have benefited from local river and land conservation.
Despite the small size of the seven Blackfoot communities relative to the big skies of the surrounding area, commitment to the Blackfoot River runs deep. A mecca for fly-fishing and other recreation, and home to a large agricultural community, the valley has a deep connection to the river. Stemming from a collaborative effort among diverse stakeholders, conservation successes have improved both recreational and agricultural economies.
Nestled in western Montana, Ovando is the central community in the Blackfoot watershed between the Swan and Garnet mountains. With a population at just a few thousand, the area is rich with history. Lewis and Clark visited the Blackfoot Valley on their expedition in the early 1800s, making note of the wide open spaces, rushing rivers and streams, and the tremendous amount of wildlife. As settlers moved west, Ovando was established as a pioneer town focused on ranching and agriculture, and that lifestyle continues to this day across the Valley.
Blackfoot Valley residents have always depended on the river — whether for ranching or recreation. Walk-in hunting and fishing access was established on the Blackfoot River early on. In the 1970s, local landowners and other stakeholders created a partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to manage recreation along the Blackfoot River corridor.
This cooperative agreement stretches 26 miles across both public and private land, providing public access within the corridor up to 50 feet above the high-water mark and establishing specific regulations to manage public recreation. Many conservation and recreational successes across the Blackfoot Valley over the past 30 years are due to this dedicated collaboration among diverse interests, including government entities, ranchers, anglers, boaters, and conservationists. In 1993, this collaborative effort was formalized through the creation of the Blackfoot Challenge, a nonprofit organization coordinating community-based conservation throughout the watershed.
As one of Montana’s most popular rivers for recreation, the Blackfoot was the centerpiece of Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It,” and has a place in hearts around the world. Recreation on the Blackfoot River jumpstarted the coordinated conservation movement and helped ensure a well-managed and loved river. Since the 1970s, recreation has played a big role in the local economy, with one-day and overnight float-trips, day hikes and camping as popular activities. New strategies to ensure sustainable, long-term management of the river have been deployed as public use has increased over the last several years.
Protecting and restoring natural amenities is not new to the Blackfoot River Valley. Since the 1970s, local resident began coordinating shared goals among ranching, agriculture, recreation, and conservation interests in the watershed from “ridge to ridge” to realize long-term benefits for both resources and livelihoods.
Trust has been key to conservation success and strong partnerships. The first step towards collaboration between stakeholders began through addressing the spread of noxious weeds. A private-public partnership was established in the 1980s, focusing on integrated weed management, with diverse participants such as landowners, county weed mitigation districts, and federal and state agencies.
Nearly 475,000 acres of land are now under active weed management, with 380 private landowners participating in the project. Invasive weed management was one benefit, but building enduring relationships, inspired by trust and mutual support between diverse partners has been a welcome result.
Working relationships spawned through the weed management program provided the backbone for further conservation initiatives around land and drought management. The Blackfoot Community Conservation Area (BCCA) is an innovative effort involving the conservation of a beloved community forest and cooperative management of surrounding public and private lands. The 41,000-acre multi-use demonstration area jointly managed under the BCCA demonstrates how public and private entities can effectively manage land and public use together.
Building on these successful efforts later culminated in a plan to tackle one of the most challenging issues facing the Blackfoot River and surrounding communities: drought. In 2000, spearheaded by the Blackfoot Challenge, the Blackfoot Drought Response Committee developed the Blackfoot Drought Response Plan. This plan provides Blackfoot water users with information to prepare for and respond to drought and oversees implementation of individual conservation plans during low-flow periods. The Committee has informed residents and visitors, including more than 90 area irrigators, about effects of drought in the Blackfoot River Corridor, and how they can protect the river, surrounding lands, wildlife, and endangered bull trout.
Transformation to Popular Outdoor Recreation Destinations
In 2013, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks released a visitor assessment of use on the Blackfoot River comparing activities over the years of 2010–2012. During this time period, there was a 20% increase in private boater use, and commercial use in 2012 reported a 20.5% increase in user days over 2011.
Awareness of Blackfoot watershed tourism opportunities is through word of mouth as well as promotion from local fishing and guiding outfitters. Tourism in western Montana, including the Blackfoot Valley, has a significant impact on Montana’s economy. In 2012–2013, The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana found that nonresident visitors in Western Montana spent $972.9 million in this region. This directly supports $662.1 million of economic activity in the region, and an additional $422.6 million of activity indirectly. With a strong connection to tourism, Blackfoot Valley communities strive to promote sustainable opportunities around the river, agricultural, and recreation economy.
“When you float the Blackfoot — as thousands of visitors do each summer — it’s easy to appreciate the beauty and unique natural values of this watershed,” said Jennifer Schoonen, Blackfoot Challenge water steward. “But what you don’t see on the surface is what really makes this watershed great — the commitment of local people to share responsibility for stewardship and promotion of a healthy river system.”