In fourteen separate cases in 1996 and 1997, the Corps approved permits allowing changes to the Yellowstone River without considering the cumulative impacts of these projects on the river's health. In an eight-page ruling, Judge Jack Shanstrom says the Corps violated the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act which both require more rigorous study than the Corps conducted.
"This is great victory for the Yellowstone River," said Mike Clark, Executive Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "Too many great American rivers have been ruined by a lack of caution. This ruling ensures that Montanans can expect better on the Yellowstone."
"The Court has agreed that the Corps has been side-stepping the law for years," said Jim Angell, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "This decision makes clear that the Corps must abandon its cavalier approach to managing the Yellowstone River and follow the law."
The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river remaining in the Lower 48 states, traveling more than 670 miles with no dams. It is famous for its world-class trout fishery, cottonwood forests, bald eagles, and Lewis and Clark history.
But increasing numbers of bank stabilization projects approved by the Corps, including rip-rapping, diking and construction of "barbs" in the river itself, have dramatically altered the river and its habitat-rich floodplain. These projects have replaced the Yellowstone's vegetated banks with carpets of boulders and its natural flow of water with currents that may be harming fish habitat and putting people at greater risk of flooding.
Six Montana conservation organizations filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers last May for violating environmental laws and ignoring the repeated warnings of scientists, who stated that bank stabilization is taking a serious toll on the Yellowstone's health. The suit, filed by Trout Unlimited, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Sierra Club, Yellowstone Valley Audubon, Park County Environmental Council and Montana River Action Network, was ruled upon Friday by Judge Shanstrom.
"This ruling comes as great news for all Montanans who live near the Yellowstone," said Christine Phillips of the Sierra Club in Billings. "The Yellowstone River runs through our backyards. We value it as a place of rest and recreation, as irrigation water for farms and drinking water for tens of thousands of people. It's not only common sense to treat the Yellowstone with the utmost caution; now we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it's the law."
"The Yellowstone is one of the last rivers in the West without a dam," said Bruce Farling, Executive Director of Montana Trout Unlimited. "This decision is the insurance policy Montana needed to prevent a slow death of the Yellowstone, one rip-rap project at a time."
Jim Barrett of the Park County Environmental Council was also pleased with the ruling. "The cumulative impacts from countless bank stabilization projects on the Yellowstone continue to take a toll on a national treasure," Barrett said. "Judge Shanstrom's ruling will require the Corps to follow the letter of the law and, as the law intended, to protect a resource belonging to all Americans. Three cheers for the Yellowstone!"