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Book Report

Saving Homewaters, The Story of Montana’s Streams and Rivers by Gordon Sullivan, The Countryman Press 2008.

The story of conservation of Montana rivers from early statehood through today. Throughout the early history of Montana our rivers and streams were a common dumping ground for our waste. Cities dumped raw sewage into the river. Mines poured in tailings to be carried away by the water. Sawmills dumped sawdust directly into our streams. Sediments from agriculture flowed from improperly tilled fields along with heavily applied fertilizers. Lax or non-existent fish and game laws and enforcement led to the decimation of many fish populations. By the middle of the 19th century, many of the state’s rivers were nearly sterile. Sullivan covers early efforts to raise awareness and regulate the waters of Montana. He relates the fascinating story of the hiring of the first state game warden, William F. Scott. Scott was the first paid employee of the young Game and Fish Commission and on him fell the entire weight of enforcing the young state’s fish and game laws from horseback. In his first report to the commission, Scott noted that native fish were in serious trouble in the state and in need of “restocking” in order to survive. This led to many years of a vigorous stocking program on Montana streams by both state and private hatcheries.

As early as the 1920s, the Fish and Game Commission began to see the negative effect of dumping massive numbers of native and non-native fish into rivers on top of established native fish populations. It wasn’t until the 1950s that science began to be applied to the management of Montana’s fisheries. The story covers the establishment of laws to save streams in Montana like the national Water Pollution Control Act in 1955 and the 1963 Montana Stream Protection Act. The book tells the story of heroes of the conservation movement like Dan Bailey, Bud Lilly, Pat Sample, Bud Morris and others who put together a coalition of trout fishers and conservationists to stop the Allenspur dam on the Yellowstone. Sullivan tells the story of saving the Blackfoot from overzealous mining interests, the passage in 1971 of the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), the state constitution in 1972 and many other success stories that have made Montana’s clean rivers and streams, from the Yaak to the Yellowstone, the envy of the entire world.

In the second half of the book, Sullivan introduces readers to current conservation leaders on many of our home streams. He serves up stories of river guides, biologists, farmers and ranchers and their efforts to continue the long tradition of the advocacy for Montana waters. The story told in this book never really ends, there is always a new threat to be confronted. We can never say that the job is done and our rivers and fish are safe for our children and grandchildren. This book tells the story of how Montanans brought their favorite fisheries back from the brink of disaster, but it also tells the story of how that protection is ongoing in our state today. It is a story of vigilance, dedication and hope. This is a book that should be read by anyone who cherishes the rivers and streams of Montana and wants to see their legacy handed down to the next generation.

Sullivan sums it up this way in the epilogue: “Our trout streams are what they are today because even though we chased the fantasies of boom and bust economies for decades, we were somehow able to save a portion of our most important gift: water. Pure water is a resource that has no equal. When weighed against all the gold, silver, copper, coal, beaver pelts, logs and oil taken from our state, water is the only one we cannot live without. It is the real gold Montana can brag about, the solitary component without which nothing lasts very long.” Gordon Sullivan lives and writes in Libby.

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