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Initiative to protect Gallatin, Madison rivers falls short of signatures needed by deadline

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Anglers drift down the Madison River

Anglers drift down the Madison River near the Black's Ford Fishing Access Site on a June afternoon.

A proposal to add new environmental protections to stretches of the Gallatin and Madison rivers is dead for now, after failing to gather enough signatures to appear on the November ballot.

Initiative 191 failed to attract enough support by the June 17 deadline for ballot initiative petitions to be submitted to county election offices, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center Executive Director John Meyer acknowledged Friday.

Cottonwood, along with the Gallatin Wildlife Association and Montana Rivers last month decided to stop working on the measure, Meyer wrote in a May 25 letter to Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan. The letter was a response to pending complaints against the groups for failing to report their spending in support of the proposed initiative.

“We took a realistic perspective and the fact that we had to fight the Attorney General for two months in court, we just lost all that time,” Meyer said. “That was the deciding factor.”

In March, the Montana Supreme Court unanimously reversed a decision by Attorney General Austin Knudsen that had temporarily halted I-191 from going out for signature-gathering.

I-191 sought to designate 35 miles of the Gallatin River, from the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the Spanish Creek confluence, and about 55 miles of the Madison River, from Hebgen Lake to Ennis Lake, as “outstanding resource waters.”

The designation affords the state’s highest protection and would prohibit any new or increased pollution adversely affecting water quality. The permitting prohibition would also be extended to temporary changes causing an adverse change in water quality — only permanent changes are prohibited under current law.

The extensive protections being proposed generated intense opposition from developers, industry groups and others who argued it would stymie development and economic growth in the area. Several conservation groups also came out against it, including Montana Trout Unlimited. The group’s conservation director told lawmakers earlier this year that he had concerns the designation could prohibit permitting for some restoration work.

Dozens of organizations in the state including economic development groups, businesses in the area and trade groups for major industries lined up to fight the proposal. In a Friday press release from a coalition formed in opposition to I-191, Montana Chamber of Commerce President Todd O'Hair said the initiative went too far.

“Nearly every segment of our Montana economy depends on clean, healthy water,” he stated. “Montanans have done a tremendous job of working together to make sure our water resources are protected — that's why we have some of the toughest water quality laws in the country. That collaborative approach has served us well and is the reason that the radical I-191 initiative failed to gain any traction.”

Under a new law passed in 2021 that requires legislative panels to weigh in on proposed ballot initiatives, the proposal also received bipartisan opposition from the Water Policy Interim Committee in April. Three of the panel’s five Democrats joined all five Republicans to oppose the measure, although the vote didn't directly affect whether an initiative could move forward.

The initiative needed more than 30,000 signatures by last week’s deadline. Meyer said he didn’t have a final tally of the signatures, but knew they were well short of that threshold.

He also acknowledged not initially filing campaign finance reports required under state law for groups that engage in significant political fundraising and spending. The sponsors of the proposal spent just $10,000, he said, adding that the reports have since been submitted to the state's political practices office. State records show a ballot issue committee for I-191 registered earlier this month, but no finance reports were available Friday.

The coalition opposing the initiative has reported raising $175,000 since April from the state Chamber, developers and agriculture groups.

Proposals to protect portions of the upper Gallatin and Madison rivers have been pursued by conservation groups in the state for the past two decades, and the effort likely isn’t over. Meyer said he plans to try again to get it on the ballot in 2024.

The Montana Supreme Court is also weighing an appeal from Cottonwood and other environmental groups who sued the state after the Board of Environmental Review rejected a petition that sought to add environmental protections to the waterways.

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