DCEDC weighs safety, but endorses river corridor plans

Hunter Herbaugh
Sunday, November 15, 2020
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The Dawson County Economic Development Council threw their support behind the Lower Yellowstone Corridor Project on Thursday, becoming the last major organization in the project’s area to support the initiative. They have been trying to formally vote on supporting the project for a couple months now, but scheduling conflicts had left the two organizations unable to actually meet until now.

At their Thursday meeting, the DCEDC received a presentation from Christine Whitlatch, a spokesperson for the Lower Yellowstone Coalition, regarding the mission to expand recreational access to the Yellowstone River in Southeast Montana. According to Whitlatch, the Coalition has found widespread support from city governments, county commissions, economic development entities and state legislators from all over Eastern Montana.

The Glendive city council and the Dawson County Commissioners voted to formally support the Coalition this summer. Gov. Steve Bullock has also proposed $4 million to be invested in the project in his final budget and Whitlatch said the Coalition is hopeful that governor-elect Greg Gianforte will carry that proposal forward. She added that with matching funds the Coalition may be able to get from various sources, they could secure about $8 million, or even up to $12 million for their goal.

While most of the DCEDC voiced support for the project, one member did say he had concerns. Beau Gibbs noted that growing up on land along the river, he saw how deceptively unsafe it could be and didn’t believe it could ever be made safe enough for wide recreational use.

“I have some pretty serious safety concerns with this project,” Gibbs said.

He noted that issues such as the strong undertow, gravel bars under the water’s surface and constant changes caused by yearly ice jams make the river incredibly unpredictable and have resulted in fatalities over time.

“These hazards are not visible until it’s too late or until the river goes down in the summer time. People in Glendive got to witness that this year when there were two, full size cotton wood trees that weren’t visible in May and are suddenly visible now and deposited on the other side of the Towne Street Bridge. With the river as dynamic as it is, I don’t feel there is ever a safe time to be on it, period,” he said. “I guess I can’t support it, because I can’t think of a way to make (the river) safe, because it’s just a flat, untamed river.” Whitlatch acknowledged Gibbs concerns but noted the Coalition has discussed safety on the river. She said that any plans to develop access to the river would have to come with an educational component so that people are aware of the dangers present on the water.

“We’ve been discussing the same dynamic safety issues. We understand that the agency as things move forward if the funding goes through this session, would have to do with education. Just like they do with hunters’ safety, just like they do with anglers’ safety, there will have to be an education component with this,” she said.

One of the measures Whitlatch noted has been discussed has included putting Fish, Wildlife and Parks boats on the river and having park rangers maintain a presence to ensure safety. However, she added that with just about anything else, they’ll never be able to make everything 100% safe. She noted that everything comes with an inherent risk, using Makoshika State Park as an example, where people there can get bitten by rattlesnakes if they are not careful.

Gibbs said that hearing that the Coalition has been discussing safety issues does help soothe some of his worry, but he still feels as though he can’t support the project.

As the council voted to approve supporting the Lower Yellowstone project, Gibbs was the sole vote against the council’s involvement, though council president Rhett Coon noted that his concerns were valid.

Whitlatch, however, noted that safety concerned voices such as Gibbs’ were valuable in the process and asked him to consider being part of future development conversations should funding for the project be approved. Gibbs said he would consider.

Reach Hunter Herbaugh at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

“With the river as dynamic as it is, I don’t feel there is ever a safe time to be on it, period,”

Beau Gibbs, DCEDC board member