Wild and Scenic

Forty years ago — on Oct. 12, 1976 — President Ford signed a bill into law protecting 219 miles of the Flathead River

By Dillon Tabish

We paddled across the slough into the golden glow of the horizon and the crisp, clear current of the Flathead River. The flame of fall had completed its colorful sweep across the young willows and black cottonwoods that trace the shoreline, igniting the landscape in autumn hues. Dozens of small fish danced beneath us as we gazed into the transparent ripples. Upstream, a bald eagle glided over his Sunday dinner, waiting and watching with a different kind of delight. The eagles and hawks and falcons that reside here adore these hushed sections of water, as do we.

It was the magic hour, a fleeting yet magnifying moment each day that seems to demand reflection. We got to talking about meaning and purpose. What drives us forward? And once we’ve arrived at a long-sought-after goal, what now? How will we appraise ourselves when we reach the end of our lease on life? Even the most successful and wealthy among us cannot avoid the lingering hankering for something — anything — further. Or so I hear.

Floating the calm labyrinth of the river, my mind wandered to John Craighead. A few weeks ago, Craighead passed away at his home in Missoula. He was 100. I never met John, though he spent much of his life only a short drive from where I grew up. I’ve only recently begun to grasp his legacy.

Craighead, along with his twin brother, Frank, was a conservationist who conducted seminal research on wildlife and habitat across Montana, particularly grizzly bears and keystone river systems. The boys grew up in Washington, D.C. and developed a passion for the natural world, fishing and canoeing the Potomac and studying plants and wildlife.

After World War II, John accepted a teaching position at the University of Montana, and during the late 1950s and 1960s he and his brother began a pioneering study of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem. Their research, conducted over a 12-year span, revealed that the population was approaching extinction, which led the U.S. government to eventually protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act.

Around this same time, during an era when dams were popping up across the country, John became an outspoken advocate for protecting vital river systems, such as the Flathead. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was proposing to build a small dam on the Middle Fork, known as the Spruce Park Project, which would have backed the river up 11 miles. The brothers, who frequently rafted the pristine stretch of river near Glacier National Park, believed the dam would have destroyed a critical migratory route for native bull trout and caused other negative ecological effects throughout the watershed.

The Craigheads spearheaded the movement that crystalized into the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, a law preserving “certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Forty years ago — on Oct. 12, 1976 — President Gerald Ford signed a bill into law that protected 219 miles of the North, South and Middle forks of the Flathead River.

We floated under the soft light of evening sky. The eagle had disappeared into the forest to tuck in for the night. As the current carried us, we paid a few final moments of reverence to this Sunday service. It was time to return to shore where everything awaited, including the answers to what comes next. The fish now rose to the surface of the cold water, whispering in the silence as we paddled toward home listening to the river.

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