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Improved Lower Yellowstone River Access to Draw Tourism to Eastern Montana

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Kayla Desroches
/
Yellowstone Public Radio
Forsyth and the Lower Yellowstone River from the window of a small plane on Wednesday, June 16, 2021.

The state of Montana is awarding $4 million to build and improve recreational sites and public access along the Lower Yellowstone River in southeastern Montana. Organizers hope to attract outdoor enthusiasts.

Local and state officials joined project organizers in Forsyth Wednesday for speeches and plane tours along the river.

Members of the Lower Yellowstone Coalition are celebrating a big win to help fund the initiative. The Republican majority state legislature this year appropriated $4 million that former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock had requested for the project.

They coalition to leverage the state’s investment for federal matching funds.

“It’s pretty exciting.”

Christine Whitlatch with the Lower Yellowstone Coalition served as the community liaison when the coalition first formed in the summer of 2020. It aims to attract a range of locals and tourists who want to walk, camp, boat or fish along the river.

Whitlatch says the goal is to build new trails, camping areas, boat launches and access points along the 175 river miles from Hysham to the North Dakota border.

“And really we’re starting to let the world know that eastern Montana goes far beyond Billings. It doesn’t stop at Billings, and that there’s a lot to explore here” Whitlach says. “We don’t have to be a drive-through to somewhere else. We can be a planned destination.”

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who spoke to the group in Forsyth Wednesday, is backing the project.

“Access is limited on this lower Yellowstone. There aren’t enough boat ramps, there aren’t enough hiking trails, there aren’t enough campgrounds. And as a result, the resource is really not accessible to folks that want to access it,” Gianforte says.

With funding secured, the Lower Yellowstone Coalition is now passing follow-through of the project to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and an advisory committee. The next steps are still to be decided, but locals in Forsyth have ideas for possible improvements.

Mayor Dennis Kopitzke says Forsyth has two points near town to access the river.

“There’s a diversion dam at East Rosebud, so there’s some active water there and there is a boat ramp, but it’s probably not the easiest way to access the river,” Kopitzke says. “So, there’s one of the key projects that I think we’ll ask this project to look at.”

Terry Kantner, who co-owns Rusty Dog Antiques in Forsyth with his wife Angela Campbell, says he’d like to see more handicap-accessible docks.

He says he’d also welcome the extra foot traffic in his shop, which he says attracts drivers from the highway or hunting guides passing through.

“And so if there’s another reason for them to come here, whether it’s improved fishing or even just a better campsite or what have you, they don’t just stay in one spot. They explore where they’re at usually,” Kanter says.

A 12-person advisory committee will be in charge of guiding FWP in spending the $4 million. The chair of the committee says anyone may apply to fill the committee by the deadline of June 30 and especially encourages community members and stakeholders along the Lower Yellowstone River to get involved.