Reflections Snake River Headwaters

The River Management Society (RMS), in partnership with the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council (IWSRCC) initiated a project to share stories from river managers and planners who have completed Comprehensive River Management Plans (CRMPs). The professionals highlighted in these articles have developed, revised and deployed CRMPs with a common goal to protect and enhance the free-flowing condition, water quality and outstandingly remarkable values of Wild and Scenic Rivers (WSRs).

Buffalo Fork of the Snake River by Tim Palmer

Snake River Headwaters

Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

The Snake River Headwaters system was designated as wild and scenic in 2009 by the Craig Thomas Snake Headwaters Legacy Act with a strong foundation of support from the surrounding community and legislators. Although there were fears around water rights and the impacts of designation on private landowners, previous experience engaging federal land management agencies provided valuable context for locals during the planning process.

Developing the Snake River Headwaters CRMP following the designation was not without challenge. Coordinating across agencies including the the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during this time was complex and remains critical to the successful management of the watershed. Today, there are several committed river organizations that provide a bridge between the community and the federal agencies in stewarding the river.

Designation has resulted in the protection of a unique system that encompasses a connected watershed, rather than just one river. These rivers and creeks flow through an iconic landscape of stunning canyons, open meadows, broad vistas, striking mountains, glacial lakes, and sage flats. The river and its tributaries create unparalleled scenery, an abundance of native wildlife, and a range of outdoor recreation on a scale that draws visitors from all over the world. The river system lies at the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Area, often referred to as one of the last intact functioning temperate ecosystems on earth.

Linda Merigliano

Linda serves as the Recreation, Wilderness and Trails Program Manager on the north zone of the forest. She came to the Bridger-Teton National Forest in 1991 and gained experience working on wilderness stewardship plans. From 1995-2000 she led the effort to update the ‘87 Snake River management plan on the Jackson Ranger District. At that time there was a lot of congestion, conflict and a few river-related fatalities had occurred. She focused on improving management around capacity and allocations for outfitting and other special uses. In 2009, she was asked to work on the visitor use aspect of the planning process for the Snake River Headwaters and she worked with the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council to coordinate developing “capacity” methodology with the IWSRCC. Linda’s goal for the headwaters to improve capacity for monitoring through local stewards and citizen science. She believes having an engaged public is critical for protecting the many values of the river.

Dave Cernicek

Dave grew up running rivers and has seen them from many angles since his childhood. He has experience in commercial guiding, working on policy in Washington, D.C., consulting, serving as a board member on several organizations and has been working as a river manager for over 20 years now. These experiences make him an intentional communicator who balances the interests of many stakeholders. Dave's goals for the Snake River headwaters include maintaining healthy streams, continuing education among user groups and securing boundary approvals.

Brian Goldberg

Brian grew up enjoying many rivers in the Southeastern United States before he moved out west to pursue his education. He completed a graduate program at Portland State University where his research involved the WSR’s in Oregon. He joined the Bridger-Teton staff in 2003 where he utilized his background in geography, fisheries, hydrology and GIS. When the Snake River Headwaters were designated in 2009, he was happy to apply his expertise to the planning process. Brian believes the future of the river depends on preservation of the cold climate refugia that provide habitat for an outstanding fisheries resource and play a critical role in the surrounding ecosystem and those downstream. He also highlights the importance of building a strong monitoring program that provides enough data for trend analysis and can help river managers adapt to climate change.

Anticipating Impacts of Climate Change

High altitude ecosystems in the West are continuing to see climbs in average temperatures as climate changes. The warming waters impact the entire riparian ecosystem of the headwaters.

Dave: “The water in some of our streams is becoming much warmer, definitely an effect of climate change. In fact, we’ve measured temperature in tributaries above 70 degrees by the end of the summer. If it’s deemed too stressful for fish to be preyed upon by humans, this trend very well may trigger the need to close a river to fishing."

The rising temperatures also impact the snowmelt rate in the Rocky Mountains, where the Snake River and other streams originate. This causes large-water runoff events that not only impact the designated segments of the watershed, but also the ecosystems hundreds of miles downstream along the Snake River.

Linda: "We’ve had some really big water years the past few years. As a result, people are losing property, banks are eroding, and structures are being undermined or lost. Bank stabilization projects on private lands are also becoming common occurrences."

Gabion at Pack Bridge on North Buffalo Fork of the Snake River by Tim Palmer

Communicating with recreationists, private landowners and other stakeholders about the anticipated impacts of climate change and potential management responses to those impacts should be done during the planning process. It's important to lay the foundation for conversations down the road. However, some impacts cannot be anticipated. In these cases, it's important to speak up about the changes that are being observed and coordinate with other agencies.

Dave: "In 2016 we started to see a green line along the river. We called in the Department of Environmental Quality and Public Health contacts and started taking water samples. It turns out that it was a native algae bloom that expanded because the water levels are lower and warmer on that segment of the river now."

Although the algae bloom has not yet caused major impacts, now it can be closely monitored. Developing a monitoring protocol for climate change impacts into the plan can be helpful to flag changes early on but can require a lot of resources. Prioritize designing a protocol that can be consistently carried out. Linda Merigliano suggests focusing on collecting the data that will most directly inform management decisions.

Linda: "The data we have available to us is not always rigorous enough for identifying trends. We don’t have data on sections of the river that don’t have as big of a commercial presence.

Create a monitoring protocol with the intent to identify the most important trends that will inform management decisions and prioritize from there."

Visitor Use Monitoring

There are so many opportunities for recreation on the Snake River Headwaters and users enjoy both traditional and new uses each year. As visitors try new activities and increase in number, the lack of clarity and provisions in the Snake River Headwaters CRMP for monitoring visitor use is creating challenges.

Linda: “The Plan does not include the monitoring protocol and details to conduct monitoring consistently and reliably. Where are the selected locations? What is the sampling scheme? Who takes and compiles the data? When is the monitoring period?”

With 413 miles of streams in the headwaters, it's a continued challenge to get a clear picture of visitor use impacts in the corridor.

Dave: “We have so many streams in far off corners of the Forest, just getting into the rivers in the wilderness requires a huge effort. A lot of our ability to understand and monitor use for capacity planning purposes has fallen by the wayside due to a lack of resources and funding: we simply don’t have enough people to do what we should.”

Even if popular spots are known, without the staffing ability to monitor those locations, there is little data to use for management decisions.

Linda: “The Granite Creek Corridor is a very popular river corridor with a lot going on with the developed hot springs and a lot of dispersed camping right on the streambank in the summer, and it is a popular spot for snowmobilers and dog-sledders in the winter. There are opportunities to make improvements here, but we haven’t had a lot of capacity.”

For this reason, the focus for visitor use management in the Snake River Headwaters is adaptation. Even if data is sparse or informal, every bit counts. When making visitor use management decisions without robust data, interviews with local river runners who visit remote parts of the headwaters can provide valuable insight on what activities are happening in locations that are harder for FS staff to get to. Counting vehicles at parking lots, digging up old records from filing cabinets, setting up trail counters or talking to outfitters can all contribute to a clearer picture of use on the river.

To prepare for these challenges ahead of time, CRMPs that incorporate adaptive approaches build flexibility into the management framework.

When an adaptive element to monitoring indicators, thresholds, and triggers is built into the plan, managers have the tools they need to address changing public needs or new kinds of recreation uses in the river corridor as the plan ages.

Boundaries and Mapping

Establishing boundaries requires careful consideration of the relationship between the river corridor and adjacent lands. The Snake River Headwaters CRMP extended the corridor boundary beyond the quarter-mile in certain areas to include ridgetops of special scenic value and to a wilderness boundary which overall helped support the intent of the WSRA, to protect and enhance river values.

There are many agency-provided land use planning resources. Utilizing public-facing GIS portals such as a NEPA Planning web-map developed by Brian Goldberg on BTNF which helps show the private sector what additional review is needed in specific areas for grazing, oil, gas, and timber projects. He also suggests considering potential shifts in the river corridor when establishing boundaries.

Brian: "What are the implications of a dynamic system moving or shifting? The stream is still protected regardless, the corridor should accommodate those geomorphological shifts."

State and Local Relationships

Successful WSR planning involves establishing an understanding of WSR standards for all involved. Balancing the authorities of other entities while pursuing the standards of a federally protected waterway can be a challenge, but in the case of the Snake River Headwaters, designation was used to maintain and protect the high water quality of the streams when state-level protections fell short. Now, the Snake River Headwaters CRMP has been used as a decision-making reference standard for establishing water quality standards.

Dave: "When the State has threatened to change the quality benchmark for all streams, we intervened with wild and scenic designation and our CRMP to illustrate that we hold these rivers to a higher standard. In doing so, we were able to get all streams and tributaries taken out of the State Plan, working with them directly to ground-truth information about streams whose quality standard would have been lowered."

Another important state partner for the BTNF is the Department of Transportation. Establishing a protocol for coordination and educating on the types of projects that are compatible with WSR standards is key to avoid confusion and conflict with the DOT.

Linda: "Let’s come up with a much clearer process internally. We can provide training for the Wyoming Department of Transportation and other key agencies to make sure everybody understands our process. We need to rely on each other to provide timely responses, knowing who does what, and understanding how all these people who work for different supervisors, can coordinate efforts successfully."

Partnership successes can come from relationships at the individual level in State agencies, who are educated to protect WSR values.

Dave: "Darin Martens is our Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) liaison with the highway department and his background has a lot of river running experience. His background is as a landscape architect, so he’s worked with WYDOT, especially on visual resource management. WYDOT has done some things that they’ve never done at any other point, and it’s out of that unique consideration of scenic resources."

WSR trainings for county planners outlined in the CRMP can help inform local government planners on regulations that should be considered for projects around WSR corridors.

Dave: “It’s not wild and scenic until you tell people it’s wild and scenic and what that means. If you don’t go down to the County planning office and tell them where they fit into the equation, they may not know how to interact with you or it.”

WSR protections can be enhanced by building partnerships in the private sector. This is growing in importance as increasing numbers of people visit and seek to live on private lands near rivers.

Fishermen by Jackson Hole Fly Fishing School

When bank fishing started to grow in popularity at a significant rate, BTNF staff identified the need to perform an Environmental Analysis (EA) before issuing new guided bank fishing outfitter permits. EA’s can be expensive, and time consuming, so staff from the BTNF asked the outfitters to fund the EA out of their potential bank fishing operations. The successful outfitter applicants most dedicated to wild and scenic river education and stewardship were awarded the special use permits.

It may seem daunting to pull so many groups into the conversation, but over time, as situations are navigated together, the relationships will strengthen.

Dave: "After years of awareness-building and collaboration, architects and developers reach out to me if they are doing something and don’t want to have conflict later. It’s really nice to have educated them and developed positive relationships. We can talk before there is an issue and avoid a standoff."

Protecting ORVs During Emergencies

When emergencies arise, there is little time to communicate how to intervene in a way that will not harm river values. For example, when wildfires threaten rivers, resulting damage to the corridor can be compounded during fire-suppression efforts. CRMPs can be an important communication and training tool for outlining WSR regulations to personnel on a fire incident.

Dave: “Addressing one of our fires may involve a thousand people and area rehabilitation needs to be done well: you can’t just walk off and leave it. When we need to intervene, we ask contractors to use best management practices (BMPs), cleaning their vehicles coming on and off the fire of weed seeds and aquatic invasives.”

Another way threats are managed with river values is through the woody debris removal policy on the BTNF.

Dave: “If we have a strainer or other flotsam get caught up on one of our two high-use rivers (2 of the 12 designated) that blocks more than ¾ of the channel, is unavoidable, and a threat to human life and safety, we will remove it. Outside of that, it remains fish habitat.”

It's also important to manage infrastructure and facilities from a safety perspective in areas with high use. On the BTNF, facilities and infrastructure are under threat from a maintenance backlog, climate change, and insufficient funding – jeopardizing both the protected river values and the local commercial industry.

Dave: “We’re working to fix the 1⁄4-mile trail that goes from the ramp to the parking lot that 120,000+ people a year must walk up to get picked up at trip’s end. If we have another wet winter, our existing trail might just fall off the ledge and be gone, which would be devastating”

River managers should anticipate potential funding sources for large-scale projects when drafting the CRMP. Options may include friends’ groups, permit and commercial fees, donations, grants, and and other partnership funding opportunities with groups like the National Forest Foundation, the Snake River Fund and the Grand Teton Association. This kind of forethought and collaboration will be useful throughout the managing and planning process.

Ultimately, tackling safety challenges and other aspects of the planning process do not need to be navigated alone.

Dave: “Regardless of river challenge or crisis, someone on a river somewhere has already dealt with situations like yours and you can find their solutions that have already been designed and bench tested to adapt to your situation. The River Management Society email listserv is an incredible resource.”

The River Management Society is the nation’s organization of river management professionals: a listserv and archive of questions and responses are included as membership benefits at https://www.river-management.org/listserve Contact rms@river-management.org for more information.


IMG1 - Alpine Canyon, Snake River by Tim Palmer IMG2 - Buffalo Fork of the Snake River by Tim Palmer IMG3 - Linda Merigliano, Recreation, Wilderness and Trails Program Manager, Bridger-Teton National Forest IMG4 - David Cernicek, Wild & Scenic Rivers/Special Uses/Partnerships/River Ranger, Bridger-Teton National Forest IMG5 - Brian Goldberg, Resource Information Manager, Bridger-Teton National Forest IMG6 - Granite Creek Fisherman by Linda Merigliano IMG7 - Riprap at Pack Bridge on North Buffalo Fork of the Snake River by Tim Palmer IMG8 - Green algae by David Cernicek IMG9 - Lunch Counter Rapid, Snake River by Max Mogren IMG10 - Alpine Canyon, Snake River by Tim Palmer IMG11 - Snake River Headwaters Map, Snake River Headwaters CRMP IMG12 - Hoback River Bridge by Wyoming Department of Transportation IMG13 - Fishermen by Jackson Hole Fly Fishing School IMG14 - Woody debris, Hoback Basin by Tim Palmer