Weather in Montana can be fickle, and so it can be difficult sometimes to plan ahead for trips outdoors. This was the case when we had planned on touring the superfund complex up the Clark Fork. While we didn’t get to see the Berkley Pit, we did get to concentrate on the down-stream part of the trip, at the Milltown superfund site.
The close proximity to the University made the trip seem even more relevant in a way, knowing that millions of dollars were being spent to clean up a part of the river only a short bike ride from our classroom. Knowing that the cleaning was being done on a river I walk over all the time on my way to class, maybe even to talk about this very ecological disaster.
First we met up with the park manager, Michael Kustudia at the parking area to the Milltown overlook. It turns out that he was very familiar with the area before working here, having grown up just across the highway in Bonner, and spent time at Milltown Reservoir as a kid. This gave him a personal appreciation for the way the dam and reservoir were perceived by the local community.
Michael gave us a history lesson starting with the Salish use of the area. Before the Clark Fork was dammed up, there were large bull trout that migrated up the Blackfoot river all the way from Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.The confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot was a popular fishing spot for people living in the area hundreds of years ago.
But then of course, “The richest hill on earth” was discovered, in the later part of the nineteenth century, forever changing many parts of western Montana’s landscape including the Clark Fork River. Copper king William A. Clark who owned much of Butte at that time had a lumber mill in Bonner. In order to get power for his mill he built the dam in 1908. Shortly after the completion of the dam, a giant flooding event washed huge amounts of heavy metals from upstream where they eventually settled behind the dam. This caused contamination of the local ground water, and eventually leading to the designation of the sight as a superfund site.
Michael was quick to point out where artificial logs made out of coconut fibers were installed near the bank of the river to plant willows in and stop erosion. He also pointed to a group of willows that had come back on their own, along with some cottonwoods. He said some people had theorized that the seeds had been under the soil for over one hundred years, waiting for their chance at life in an entirely different world than that of their ancestors. The reseeding that was done by park employees was part of what Michael called the three R’s of superfund sites, remediation, restoration, and redevelopment.
We could look just upstream at where the cottonwoods were already mature, and get a good sense of what the area would look like in the future. Although humans have a knack for disturbing ecosystems, and in the case of the upper Clark Fork, really, really disturb it. It’s good to see that we can put some of these landscapes together again.