When Kascie Herron talks about rivers, her voice gets clear and loud—like a singer who pulls the mic away when she belts out the high notes.
“What’s your favorite river?” I ask — the phone connection crackles.
“Well. I love the Bitterroot, the Clark Fork, the Blackfoot, the Yellowstone,” Kascie says, in crescendo. “But I also love the glacial rivers of the Flathead. You don’t always get as many big fish, but the water is Caribbean blue, and you can see 20 feet down to the bottom in places. Oh, I forgot to mention the Smith and the Dearborn!”
When you love rivers, it’s hard to choose just one.
Kascie spent most of her early life surrounded by water. Her grandmother’s 300-acre cash crop farm is situated on the eastern edge of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Time on the bay—the largest estuary in the United States—and at the ocean took up a big chunk of Kascie’s summers and played a crucial role in her childhood and education. By the time she graduated from college in the mid-aughts, Kascie knew she wanted to spend her life working to protect fragile ecosystems and the clean water that makes them thrive.
These days, Kascie lives in the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town of Victor, Montana, and is my colleague at American Rivers, the country’s oldest and most effective conservation organization dedicated solely to rivers. When she’s not out fishing or rafting, she is busy building a movement to protect our country’s wildest, most spectacular rivers from being dammed and developed.
In fact, Kascie’s home state is ground zero for river protection.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was dropping dams into rivers by the thousands. Six dams were proposed for Montana’s Flathead River system alone. On the Middle Fork of the Flathead, the proposed Spruce Park Dam would have backed up the river’s bluer-than-blue water for 11 miles, flooding habitat for grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines, moose, wolves, and mountain goats.
Dams are generally bad for rivers, impacting the entire ecology of the system, creating lakes where there should be trees and valleys, changing how much water and sediment flows downstream, and altering the entire chain of life that depends on a river’s natural ebb and flow—from plant life to bugs to fish. To wit, a single dam system in Alabama was responsible for the extinction of 30 species.
Renowned wildlife biologists and brothers John and Frank Craighead caught wind of the Spruce Park Dam project and led the fight for a federal system to protect the Middle Fork of the Flathead and other wild rivers. A decade later, on October 2, 1968, Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Wild and Scenic Rivers Act into law. American Rivers itself was founded five years later to protect more vulnerable rivers under this landmark law.
Think of Wild and Scenic—which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018 —like a national parks system for rivers; it makes our most pristine, most astonishingly beautiful, most culturally important rivers—and the land alongside them—permanently off-limits to dams or activities that would negatively affect the river.
These days, just over 12,700 miles of U.S. rivers are Wild and Scenic. That’s less than 1 percent of the 3 million river miles across the country. Montana’s five Wild and Scenic Rivers (the Upper Missouri River, the North, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River, and East Rosebud Creek) encompass 388 protected river miles, on par with New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
That may soon change. Kascie and a broad set of local conservation groups, recreationalists, homeowners, farmers, ranchers, and businesses have worked for more than three years to win Wild and Scenic designation for rivers in Montana. In August 2018, a bill with bipartisan support became law, protecting 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek, a high-mountain stream that flows into the Stillwater River, a tributary of the Yellowstone. As recently as 2009, a hydropower dam threatened East Rosebud. Now the creek—Montana’s first Wild and Scenic River in over 40 years—will flow freely forever. Meanwhile, a proposal by the Montana Headwaters Security Act—a coalition Kascie spearheads with other local conservation groups—has won the endorsement of 1,000 businesses and over 2,000 Montanans. If the proposal is introduced as legislation and passed into law, it will designate 35 new Wild and Scenic streams on public lands in the Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.
Montanans have a big love for healthy rivers. Statewide polls have found that two-thirds of people in the state support designating more Wild and Scenic Rivers, and 85 percent believe rivers are highly important to Montana’s economy and way of life.
Despite the positive momentum, Kascie says advocating for rivers is far from easy.
Like farming, water is largely a man’s world. The business owners, water managers, legislators, ranchers, and conservationists Kascie works with day-to-day are mostly all older-generation men. “My grandfather used to say to me, ‘Aw, here’s the tree hugger,’” she says. “Translation: Here’s a young woman who has no idea what she’s talking about and wants to tell him how to manage the land that he’s been farming for 60 years.”
Kascie, who is 33, has worked in river conservation for a decade, and has a Master’s Degree in water resource policy and conflict resolution, says she’s had to learn how to speak up and speak out. She has been called out for being young, being a woman, being inexperienced, and not owning large swathes of land. She also notes that water is a highly emotional subject. Americans vehemently argue about what protecting and keeping water clean should look like.
Still, Kascie exudes positivity.
“I love to fish. I love to raft. I love to be around rivers. The feeling is pure life. It’s constant energy. When I’m feeling really low, if I spend an evening, an afternoon or even just a couple of hours on the river I feel a million times better. And I think a lot of people feel the same.”
Our phone call is running long, and we both need to run. I have one last question, I say. “In the face of sexism and a river protection movement that right now feels like we take two steps back for every step forward, how do you keep going?”
Kascie doesn’t miss a beat: “There aren’t many places that look the same as when our grandparents were kids. Wild and Scenic guarantees that when you go visit your favorite river, you can come back, and it will be the same. I think that’s pretty special.”
I can feel her beaming, radiating passion through the phone waves. We say our goodbyes, and I hang up the phone, only to realize that I’m smiling, too.