In Montana, so much is about the water, the water and the rivers.

That’s what the quiet celebration was all about a couple of Saturdays ago when folks from across the state gathered at the mouth of Rock Creek to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU).  Among the men and women present there to savor the rich conservation history of TU in Montana were many of the old warriors who long ago saw the need, got themselves organized and educated, and joined the battle to protect the rivers and lakes so essential to the quality of life we enjoy here.

It was humbling to look around at the crowd and see the many people who had worked hard for years to protect our precious cold water fishery. I listened to the laughter and heard some of the war stories and marveled at the talent and energy that was so evident in the people around me. I was reminded how easy it is to forget the amount of passion and selfless hard work it has taken to restore and protect the fish and wildlife resources we enjoy. I suspect many folks new to the scene or from generations just coming up have little notion of that history.

The location was fitting, a fact that was not lost on most in attendance.

Rock Creek, you see, was for decades the focal point for stream conservation and cold water fishery protection in western Montana.

In the long years when the Clark Fork was a near lifeless river poisoned by our own hand and the Blackfoot was on its knees with its once-vital fishery barely hanging on, it was Rock Creek that remained  the legendary Blue Ribbon trout stream in western Montana. It was Rock Creek where conservationists threw down the gauntlet and held the line for decades, and where the template for collaboration created in no small part by the efforts of TU was forged and refined and carried forward to pump life into the rest of the river system.

Of course, the work of TU didn’t start there. The great trout rivers of Montana all seemed to be under threat and in need of champions fifty years ago when a group including fly fishing legends Dan Bailey, Bud Lilly, and Bud Morris  held the first organizational meeting for a Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited at Chico Hot Springs.

Dams were the big issue then. Although lessons learned from the construction of major dams all over Montana and the resultant impacts to native trout should have been fresh in the minds of all Montanans, new dam proposals loomed large. One after another, dam proposals for the Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River, the Reichle Dam proposed for the Big Hole River, and the Allenspur Dam on the Yellowstone all had to be challenged and defeated.

Other challenges loomed large and had to be met as well. As new TU chapters formed across Montana, the efforts of these groups broadened to address threats to water quality and fisheries from municipal sewer discharges to sedimentation of tributary streams due to logging practices. The organization supported efforts to protect native trout species and lobbied Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to suspend fish stocking in the great trout rivers and, instead, to work to sustain wild trout populations.

Recognizing the importance of habitat protection, TU members worked to convince the Montana Legislature to pass a landmark streambed preservation act that requires agency review and approval for any stream modifications. TU also joined with FWP to help establish minimum instream flows in the Yellowstone and other rivers and streams to prevent dewatering and protect critical fishery habitat.

Again, working with FWP and a number of other conservation groups, Montana TU joined in the decade-long effort to codify a stream access law that is now recognized as the best in the nation and a point of pride for Montana anglers and all other river recreationists.

When the lessons of past mining activity, so evident on the rivers in western Montana, were forgotten and the threat of major mining development loomed again in the upper Blackfoot, TU joined the fray and helped lead the effort to defeat Initiative 147, which would have opened the way for an open-pit, cyanide heap leach mine in the headwaters of that iconic river.

These things are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to efforts by TU, including TU’s national organization, Montana TU, and the local chapters to protect what is critical and what we hold dear.

Every one of us who floats a river or casts a fly should remember that if it were not for the work of many dedicated people and organizations like TU, our days on the water would be much less rewarding.

Now, each day brings new concerns and challenges. That’s why the celebration at Rock Creek was a quiet one. It was good to reflect upon the past for a moment, but then it was time to look ahead at the work that remains to be done.

Vigilance will always be required when it comes to protecting the water that flows through our valleys and our dreams.

Happy Anniversary, Montana Trout Unlimited!

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