March 26, 2003
Spring cleaning: PCEC and FWP drag old cars out of Yellowstone


The brisk wind snapping across the river and the trees shadowing the salvage site make the cool morning seem even cooler. A small group of Bozeman TV reporters cluster on a knoll, talking to Jim Barrett and Dawn Drotos from the Park County Environmental Council. Three Fish, Wildlife and Parks workers stand in a boat, their bright orange life jackets a splash of color in the brown landscape. Ken and Robert Gray, owners of Gray’s Auto Works, hand them different kinds of chains, hooks, and latches.

All the activity centered around a submerged car in the middle of the main channel of the Yellowstone River just off Hilda Harper’s property near Carter’s Bridge. As many as six cars were thought to be submerged in that fast-flowing water, although the retrieval crews only found one. The cars, the boulders in that area, even the main channel of the river itself are all part of the aftermath of the 1996 and 1997 floods.

“This whole area was covered in water,” Harper remembered. “Where the car was, was land.” Gesturing to an island of cobble in the middle of river, she said, “That’s where the river ran. There were buildings over there, five of them. There was a cabin, built in 1886. It all went down river, between the two floods.”

The river cut itself about 100 feet or more of Harper’s property, claiming roads, orchards, and picnic areas on her husband’s land. Large trees and other debris washed onto the treed area where Harper and her husband used to take guests to relax and enjoy the river. A long metal canoe was embedded in a pile of cobble and gravel along the shore, and a car, almost completely intact and about 20 feet long, lodged in the middle of the new main channel. It was this car that the Auto Works and FWP men worked over 5 hours to take out. “I see all the devastation out there,” Harper reflected. “The land’s ruined. It’s life, I suppose.”

For six months Drotos and the PCEC has been organizing a massive cleanup project with the FWP to retrieve cars that were washed downstream in the floods. The idea began last summer, when Drotos herself was a victim of the car by Harper’s place. Her canoe had a large gash in the bottom from running into the roof; other recreationists have had holes poked in the bottom of boats, torn inner tubes, or minor injuries while swimming or fishing. Cars at Needs Point, Strong Lane, and Blue Lane, the other three sites the PCEC and FWP cleaned, have had similar incidents. Cars used for bank stabilization have been found as far away as Miles City.

“I didn’t realize (the problem) pretty much covered the river there,” Drotos said. “I started talking to county commissioners, trying to find out who had the funding and the responsibility to do something.” Eventually, she even went to state agencies. “They were all aware the cars were there,” she explained, “and they felt badly (about it), but they didn’t feel it was in their purview to undertake the project.”

Drotos and PCEC director Jim Barrett had already decided this was something the PCEC should follow up on, and they spent time researching and contacting agencies until finally Glen Phillips at FWP found a few extra thousand in their budget they could use to do the cleanup.

The cost is around $2,000, but that just pays for the time and use of the trucks from Gray’s Auto Works. Drotos’s time, the time of the FWP employees, and the use of the jet boat were covered by their respective agencies. For the project, the PCEC had to get three permits for each of the three sites, form the local conservation district, the Army Corps of Engineers, and FWP. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation waived a fourth permit for use of waterways. “Sometimes, people have a whole bunch of hoops to jump through,” Barrett observed.

Most of the problems with the cars, cement culverts and dividers, and other debris came from bank stabilization efforts as far back as the 1960’s. “The river is our main issue. The river is the heart of the whole place,” Barrett said. “We’re waiting for the (Yellowstone River) Task Force studies, to find out what kind of manipulation can occur on the river bank. We’re dealing with growth and development to discourage people from building on the floodplain and riverbanks.”

“There’s a chance to do something now,” Drotos noted. The regulatory effect in the county’s new growth policy, as well as the recommendation from the task force, can all work together to try to prevent the after affects of poorly-planned bank stabilization efforts and residential development.

“Legal action is the way a person would deal with this if they were injured,” Barrett said. “This was a good process because it was a cooperative thing and a positive action. The best part was the opportunity to get results. That’s a rare thing, to see instant results.”

“And definite results,” Drotos added. “(With) political stuff, it’s flipping back and forth, and there’s no clear-cut outcome. (Here,) the cars are not there anymore.”

“I was glad (when they contacted me),” Harper exclaimed after the cleanup was over. “It bothered me to see it in the river, but I couldn’t do anything about it, and my husband couldn’t do anything about it. It was dangerous work.”

After two days of cleanup, Barrett said Friday, “It looked like a heroic effort to me. They never gave up. It was undaunted courage.”