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Wild and Scenic

Rock Creek meets opposition

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People are beginning to love Rock Creek to death, but at least one area couple doesn't want the federal protection of a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation.

Since his 2012 retirement from a Houston oil company, Spencer Huffman and his wife, Deborah "Sue," have lived and offered cabin rentals on a remote section of Rock Creek.

But last year, after attending a public meeting on designating part of Rock Creek as Wild and Scenic, the Montana natives grew concerned about losing their oasis, Sue says. After fretting all winter, she wrote a letter opposing the designation that she recently turned into an online petition.

"It's the principle of the thing," she says. "They're trying to set down mandates in addition to what we've already got."

Western Montana's rapidly growing population is putting more pressure on wild streams. Wild and Scenic designations would ensure those streams are "preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected." Montanans for Healthy Rivers, a coalition of several groups, identified streams that are still wild enough for designation.

Last year, MHR spokeswoman Kascie Herron spoke to people living near those streams about Wild and Scenic protection, because the long process of designation must be community-driven.

Some Rock Creek landowners, especially those farther downstream, favor designation and are forming "Wild and Scenic Rock Creek" to rally support. Meanwhile, those who are opposed have asked Sue to be their champion, Sue says.

But some take umbrage with parts of her lengthy petition that aren't accurate about the Wild and Scenic designation.

"It's not surprising that there's a lot of misinformation or unclear understanding of the act," Herron says, "because there hasn't been a Wild and Scenic designation in Montana in 40 years."

Sue contends the designation will turn the narrow stream corridor into a national park and that it will be advertised as such. She read a 1970 Cornell Law Review article that says an advantage of the designation "is the greater publicity attaching to any recreation area of 'national' significance." Sue says she loves the creek as it is and doesn't want more people.

Sue also wrote Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, asking about the act. Fielder told her the act was "part of a bigger scheme to get more federal land," Sue says.

Fielder recently became the CEO of the American Lands Council, a Utah-based group that wants federal land transferred to the states.

While the National Park Service oversees some designated rivers, the U.S. Forest Service manages most. The USFS would manage Rock Creek because the proposed section is already bounded by USFS land.

Herron says there's no correlation between the designation and increased use on other rivers. Often, rivers were already gaining popularity when they were designated.

"I think the Blue Ribbon trout designation [Rock Creek] received years ago might have done more to draw people here," Herron says. "In the end, it's how the local businesses decide to market it."

Sue has more concerns, but Herron encourages her and others to help develop the plan so it says what they want.

"We're still very much in discussion," Herron says. "This is just the first step."

Clarification: A cartoon that accompanied this story characterized the Huffmans as Texans. In fact, they are Montana natives who maintained property here while living in Houston, and have since moved back to Montana. The Indy has removed the cartoon and clarified that the Huffmans are originally from Montana.

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