While sitting on the banks of the Yellowstone River as it flowed past his Forsyth-area farm, Larry Rau was always amazed to think that the same stream that was so low and warm in the summer could be 20 feet over his head and raging cold by spring.
“The power of that river is awesome,” he said, comparing the loud cracks of ice jams breaking up to ice-breaking ships used in the Arctic.
So strong is the river that it continually chews up land, relocating rocks, whole trees and topsoil downstream, which is good for the regeneration of species like cottonwood and produces sandbars used by birds and side channels important to fish.
To halt the loss of riverfront land, Rau contemplated armoring the bank with riprap or planting trees. But after getting a tip from a local Natural Resources Conservation Service worker, he instead contacted the Montana Aquatic Resources Services to discuss what’s known as a channel migration easement. Like other easements, channel migration easements are purchased from willing landowners who are paid for land that will eventually be lost through erosion or channel movement, according to The Nature Conservancy.
It was MARS who stepped in to pay Rau for his 190-acre easement along more than a mile of river frontage, while the Nature Conservancy agreed to hold the easement — the first the group has ever held and only the second on the entire Yellowstone River.
“We’ve got a longtime interest in the Yellowstone,” said Jim Berkey of The Nature Conservancy. “One thing that scientists are recognizing is the importance of that river to move laterally over time.”
The first CME on the Yellowstone was done through the Montana Land Reliance near Sidney. After it was proposed in 2014, that deal finally closed in 2016.
The link between both projects is MARS and its now-retired program development director, Tom Hinz. Rau credited Hinz’s passion for channel migration easements for talking him into the deal.
“Frankly, Tom was a great mentor,” Rau said.
The Nature Conservancy said the easement is a pilot project with an ultimate vision of piecing together another 20 migration zones between Laurel and the North Dakota border. The Conservancy also hopes to use CMEs elsewhere in the state, including the Upper Missouri River basin.
“The Yellowstone River is a great place to explore channel migration easements as a restoration tool,” said Sierra Harris, Freshwater Conservation Program manager for The Nature Conservancy in Montana, in a press release. “Over the past 15 years multiple partners have conducted a massive cumulative effects analysis on the river. There’s a lot of data to support where the channel migration zones are along the Yellowstone.”
Rau’s property is downstream of the Sand Creek and Yellowstone River confluence, about 190 acres of which is wetland and non-wetland habitat along the Yellowstone River. When Rau first bought the farm 17 years ago, he could ride his horse down a gravel bank to the river. Now that same area is stacked 7 feet deep under sand and clustered with new cottonwood and salt cedar tree growth.
“It’s an amazing dynamic,” he said. “It’s just flabbergasting how much it has changed.”
Lauren Alleman, of MARS, said the channel migration easements have gained attention from numerous landowners along the Yellowstone River, but there’s little funding to fulfill all of the requests.
“We rely on grants and selling stream and wetland credits to people who need to build on wetlands or streams,” Alleman said.
Even with funding, the process takes time because there are surveys and mapping to conduct, along with an agreement on price. Alleman said that value is often equal to or less than an appraised value since the nonprofit can’t pay more than fair market value.
Rau said the process takes patience, taking about a year-and-a-half to wend its way to a conclusion.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet deal,” he added.
After retiring from the BLM in 2009, Rau has decided to move to Colorado and lease the farm out, leaving a legacy and at least one remnant of a wild river behind.
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