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Amiable Woody:
first-ever River Manager of the Year




Woody Baxter with his dog, Trapper, and the plaque presented him as "River Manager of the Year" by the national River Management Society. S. Vernon Photo


by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
July 2, 1998


Woody Baxter of Seeley Lake was recently chosen as the first-ever River Manager of the Year by the national River Management Society, an organization dedicated to the protection and management of North America's river resources. Earlier this spring, Baxter accepted the award during the Society's annual conference in Anchorage, Alaska.

Since 1990, Baxter, a twenty-five-year veteran of the outdoor recreation business, has worked as manager of the Blackfoot River for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. His duties include everything from campground maintenance to angler education. He tells people about the river's resources, encourages good manners, and advises people about the river's rules and regulations.

Most Seeley Lake residents recognize Baxter as the "river ranger" who drives the silver Chevy pickup with the green canoe on top. An aging golden retriever named Trapper is Baxter's constant companion. "I don't let him drive very often," Baxter joked.

Baxter's good humor has made him a favorite among agency personnel and local residents alike. He is proud of his recent award, but in his usual humble manner, says the attention is better focused on the people who nominated him.

"Two hundred people are river managers nationwide. Any one of them deserve this award. I just think it's neat that the people I work with went to bat for me like this," Baxter said during a recent interview. Baxter appreciates all of his co-workers and others who nominated him. "I look at all of the effort these people did and give them a big thank you," Baxter said.

Several area landowners and professional land managers helped nominate Baxter for the award. Baxter is a peacemaker, they said. He helps ranchers and landowners resolve issues that arise due to increased recreational use of the river. At the same time, anglers, picnickers, and floaters continue to enjoy the natural beauty of the river.

"Over the years I have worked with numerous river managers, and Woody, without question, is the most dedicated and committed person we have had on the Blackfoot," Hand Goetz, director at Lubrecht Experimental Forest, wrote in his nomination letter. "Woody goes out of his way to keep everyone informed, to listen to individual concerns, and to respond immediately when someone has a problem. Everyonecorporate landowner, governmental agency, rancher or recreationistis treated similarly. As a result, he is a very effective communicator and administrator," Goetz said.

Conflicts and tough issues arise repeatedly along this river, which saw a doubling of recreational use between 1975 and 1991. Since 1991, recreation use has gone "way up" again, Baxter said. He attributes the increase to population growth in western Montana, and also the movie, A River Runs Through It.

The movie, Robert Redford's dramatic portrayal of fly fishing in the Blackfoot River, was based on a story by the late Norman Maclean, whose family still owns a summer cabin at Seeley Lake. Anglers, especially fly fishermen, are seeking an opportunity to fish where the Maclean family fished.

"I went from two outfitters to 32 just like that," Baxter said.

Better fishing has also brought more people to the river, Baxter explained. In the late 1980s, people involved with Trout Unlimited, the Blackfoot Challenge (a local group whose focus is river management and conservation) and several government agencies were alarmed by a severe decline in fish populations. Projects were implemented successfully to restore the fishery. Since 1991, fish populations have improved.

Floating on the river is also on the increase, Baxter said, because of the nationwide popularity of the sport. And river kayaking is also more popular. "It's the crazy Mountain Dew generationadventure sports are a big thing," Baxter grinned.

Baxter helps manage recreation at twenty Fishing Access Sites, two state parks, and the entire river itselfwhich recreationists may use up to 50 feet above the high water mark. In the winter, he also administers funding of the snowmobile grooming programs at Seeley Lake and Lincoln. He wants people to know that there is a profession called "outdoor recreation management."

"I don't think it'll ever be recognized as a profession like plumbers or doctors, but it is a profession. The main goal is natural resource management," Baxter explained.

The best part of Baxter's job, he said, is its diversity. "It's sure not a factory job. It's different every hour," he explained. From chasing stray dogs to helping first-time floaters, Baxter's duties are varied. And he enjoys what he calls, "a fair amount of freedomfor a bureaucrat," he laughed.

He also likes his job because it's outdoors, and he likes working with people. For the past 25 years, he has talked to people about river recreation in a career that began with a degree in wildlife biology at the University of Montana in Missoula. Baxter's work took him to Alaska for six years, where he was river ranger on the Forty Mile River, and tour guide at Mount McKinley Park (now Denali). For two years he went "south" and worked as the "bird man" in the Florida Everglades, touring "little-old-blue-haired ladies" through vast wetlands via canoe. "Those blue-haired ladies knew more about birds than I could ever hope to learn," he laughed. In 1986, he returned to Montana, where he worked as a river ranger on the Smith River before moving to Seeley Lake.

A major project he has worked on in recent years is the development of a river-wide management plan that provides guidelines for commercial outfitting, general public use limitations, and user fees for seven reaches of the Blackfoot River from Missoula to Roger's Pass.

The plan was developed with assistance and advice from local landowners, recreationists, government agencies and conservationists. Baxter believes these guidelines will help his department develop specific regulations that will protect the river and also allow river users to continue to enjoy a quality outdoor experience.

"Agencies and landowners may have differing agendas, from wild and scenic to development," he said. "We are all working together to have the same theme on seven different reaches of river."

And working together has worked. The Blackfoot River corridor, Baxter said, remains a beautiful place to fish, to float, to picnic, and to just relax. He cites the theme of the Blackfoot Challenge group. "In river management, it's important that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing," he said.

In the Blackfoot River Valley, Woody Baxter is the person who brings those hands together.

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