Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Milltown Dam Site and DryCottonwood Creek Ranch: 

A Day of Tuber Talk, Slickens, and Surprises


We’ve been seeing a lot of each other. Ten weeks into the semester its easy to think we all know everything about each other, but despite this Rachel asked everyone to pair up and unearth a previously unknown fact about their partners. This led to fascinating conversation and ridiculous speculation. Back at the motor pool after the trip we circled up and shared ‘little known facts’ about each other. It was in turns hilarious, intriguing, edifying and surprising.

The same can be said for the entire field trip.

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Getting to Milltown from Missoula is not challenging, however; we struggled. We made surprise visits to Turah and Bonner before winding through the Canyon River Golf Course to the overlook.

We parked at the small pullout and followed a paved path to a paved circle surrounded by four and a half foot fencing. Signs, placed at neat intervals along the fence, gave a chronological history of the Blackfoot-Clark Fork confluence below.

The first sign in the sequence pictured a Salish fishermen poised with his spear, presumably about after bull trout if the caption (explaining that the Salish called the confluence “Place of big bull trout”) is to be believed. The following Monday Clark Fork Coalition Science Director Chris Brick used the same picture in her slide show adding that the photograph was taken on Warm Springs Creek, the Clark Fork’s headwaters.

The signs progressed along the fence from west to east, the easternmost describing the final restoration and remediation efforts of 2008. Mike Kustudia, manager of Milltown State Park summarized the history, emphasizing the Milltown’s significance as a ‘hub.’ The Sapphire Mountains run south from Mount Sentinel; the Rattlesnake Range heads north from Woody Mountain; the Blackfoot River flows in from the east; the Clark Fork courses north from Butte. Highway 90 passes through Milltown, so do train tracks and highway 200. Mike’s love of the place was apparent and slightly infectious. He painted a picture of the future Milltown park, with fishing and ‘tuber’ access and a paved bike path connected to the Kim Williams trail here in Missoula, continuing along all the way to Turah.

One placard pictured the confluence mid-restoration. The ‘place of big bull trout’ looked like a construction site, like maybe Walmart was coming to Milltown. In the intervening years much has changed at the site, but evidence that man sculpted the place abounds: square ponds, straight roads, and a river channel that resembles a far too perfect sine wave.

What struck me most about the restoration efforts at Milltown, particularly in contrast to our afternoon along the upper Clark Fork, was that the restoration is not just of the land. The State Park and Mike Kustudia are using the clean-up to launch a restoration of Milltown itself.

This is in direct opposition to the efforts along the Upper Clark Fork where the land along the river is held almost entirely by private landowners, most of whom raise cattle. These ranchers have worked around the pollution for one hundred years. They marked it off, not necessarily as hazardous, but because the strangely barren land couldn’t feed cattle. These empty patches became just as much a part of the landscape as the Pintler Mountains to the west and the Sapphires to the east. They even made a name for these areas, slickens. The river’s edge was fenced and cows never saw its surface. Now restoration efforts plan to build roads to these fenced off regions, roads through productive pastures.

We visited Maggie Schmidt, the Ranch Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition’s Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch. She, an Environmental Studies major, working for a river conservation group, raised concerns about the EPA’s ability to restore the river without ruining her business. She is certainly more open to restoration than any other rancher; her ranch is an experiment in restoration. And yet even she questions its feasibility. The plan promises reimbursement for all troubles caused by the restoration but for how long and to what extent?


This field trip contributed answers to some questions, but brought new questions into our discussions of environmental restoration.  For example, I’m worried that we’ve too quickly glanced over the concerns of ranchers. They possess a wisdom borne of generations on the land. It brought up questions for us about the industrial scale of some restoration efforts. Some of us felt like our new awareness of all this pollution in Milltown and the larger Clark Fork watershed shouldn’t empower us to launch yet another industrial project; perhaps instead it should scare us into sitting on our hands for a while.

Chris Brick spoke to our class the week following our field trip. In her presentation, she framed the restoration project as a ‘big one right for the west.’ What does something like that cost? Not just in construction fees, but in terms of risk. Risk associated with unearthing one hundred years of pollution, resurfacing time-tested ranch land, and, most concernedly for us, displacing all of the hazardous material onto the town of Opportunity.

The ‘final destination’ for all the hazardous soils taken from the Clark Fork is the town of Opportunity. The Anaconda Company constructed the town of Opportunity in the 1950’s. They had been using the swampy area as a repository for a while and with growing concern about the environmental implications of so much toxic sludge in one place the company decided to build a town by it. The logic being that it can’t be too terrible if people live near it. In the restoration of the last decade there has been discussion at each stage of where to relocate all the pollution. In the Milltown dam removal experts recommended a local repository, but the idea was ultimately nixed. The repository would have been in a floodplain and for many it made more sense to concentrate all the toxic business in one place. The repository will need to be monitored in perpetuity. Perpetuity is a long time.

If there’s a common idea tying environmental efforts together today, it’s that the natural world is constantly changing, and so are we. How then can we really promise ‘in perpetuity’? The western environmental movement isn’t even a century old. Has the human race practiced anything ceaselessly? As a culture, do we even have a concept of what that might look like?


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