Jerry O'Connell first glimpsed the Blackfoot River in 1986. He'd just come out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness from a two-week backpacking trip, and was hitchhiking his way down Highway 200 toward Missoula. A driver dropped him off outside the Roundup Bar, a riverside doublewide that's since burned down, and O'Connell set to thumbing his next ride. That's when he noticed a sign near the bridge that said "Blackfoot River." He'd heard of it, and, curious, decided to take a peek.
"It was just stunning-looking," says O'Connell, who is now the Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper. "Right then, it just hooked me."
Five years later, O'Connell bought a chunk of land four miles from that very spot—just before Robert Redford's film "A River Runs Through It" made the Blackfoot a household name. O'Connell started contributing to studies and serving on committees with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in 1992, became active with the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited in 1997 and joined the latter's board of directors in 2001. He fly-fishes. He floats. He's a regular participant in the annual Blackfoot River Cleanup. "I just love the damn river," he says.
There was a time, just a year ago, when O'Connell could spend hours criticizing recreation management on the Blackfoot River. Tubers were moving farther up the river into pristine stretches. FWP was lagging in collecting data on recreational use. Landowners were considering backing out of a longstanding public access agreement, hoping to hold the agency's feet to the flames. O'Connell was in the thick of it.
A lot has changed in a year. Tea Party lawmakers have replaced tubers in O'Connell's rants. Bad policy has replaced beer cans and discarded shoes. In December, O'Connell founded a nonprofit called the Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper. He works with an international network of similar waterway-based conservationists who banded together as the Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999. The nonprofit's global mission—and the influence of Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—has broadened O'Connell's agenda.
"I can spend my time at the access point explaining to people 'Here's a net bag for your beer cans,'" he says, "but there's bigger fish to fry."
GOP lawmakers in Washington, D.C., this summer introduced bills that would strip funding for conservation efforts nationwide. Among them is House Resolution 2584, a long and detailed list of environmental spending reductions billed as a solution to the country's financial woes. The bill cuts budgets for the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and reduces funding for conservation grants through the Department of the Interior. The EPA has already discontinued audits of state-reported Clean Water Act violations due to funding constraints; H.R. 2584 would cut the agency's budget another 18 percent. President Barack Obama said July 21 that he intends to veto the proposal should it reach his desk.
"The fact that there's a whole bunch of people in Congress right now who want to practically totally defund the EPA is a scary thing for Montana," says Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, adding it's "100 percent crystal clear" that the GOP is using the deficit reduction issue "as an excuse to cut programs they've always disliked."
The H.R. 2584 provision that most worries Farling and O'Connell would restrict the EPA from clarifying portions of the Clean Water Act. The agency has long recognized a need for such clarifications. So has Farling. Several sensitive tributaries and wetlands along the Blackfoot currently fall outside the EPA's regulatory jurisdiction. H.R. 872, a proposed prohibition on EPA regulation of pesticide discharges near waterways, adds to those concerns.
The Montana Farm Bureau Federation has openly backed proposals to scale back EPA oversight, arguing that farmers inevitably bear the financial burden of costly regulatory schemes that produce little environmental benefit. MFBF Executive Vice President Jake Cummins says that the EPA "has become more powerful than was ever intended, especially over the past two years. There is an ever-increasing burden of federal environmental regulations on agriculture, from restrictions on pesticides to strict rules on how to manage dust to regulating alleged greenhouse gasses." Cummins adds that, given the impact of intense regulation on the agricultural industry, "I don't think you can cut EPA enough."
Yet the EPA has played a key role in numerous conservation and restoration projects from Butte to Milltown. It continues to bankroll the effort to relocate mine tailings from Mike Horse Dam at the headwaters of the Blackfoot. Farling says that without the EPA, "we'd still have Milltown Dam, we'd still have all the crap behind Milltown Dam, we wouldn't be on a positive track to have a relatively decent cleanup of the whole upper Clark Fork." O'Connell adds that Mike Horse Dam alone is a shining example of "why we need more funding, not less."
O'Connell's new job as riverkeeper partly overlaps with his old concerns. He's helping FWP collect data about recreational use on the Blackfoot by counting visitors, for example. But now he sees a need for national advocacy, too. He's drafting letters to lawmakers decrying the proposed EPA cuts. He's meeting with Montana mayors in the hopes they'll oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline and, more broadly, the Alberta tar sands. And he's even pushing his fellow waterkeepers to be less partisan and start promoting a more unified view of the nation's waterways.
"The Blackfoot's just a tributary of the Clark Fork, and the Clark Fork's just a tributary of the Columbia, as is the Spokane River and Lake Pend Oreille. We're all connected hydraulically."