Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Milltown State Park


            The Milltown State Park sits at the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers, just a short drive or bike ride from Missoula. Unique in its own right, the park is divided by the Clark Fork River. On a cold and windy morning in November, we met Michael Kustudia, Montana State Parks, at the overlook, perched on the south side of the river.


The view from the overlook sets your gaze eastward, over Bandmann Flats. This floodplain used to be covered by water, containing the remnants of heavy metals sent downstream from the mining operations of Butte, MT. Today, the persistent Clark Fork carves through, reclaiming a more natural meandering path. 


Judging by an aerial view, it’s difficult to imagine that this was ever the site of a dam that became Montana’s first Superfund site. The Milltown dam was built in 1908 and supplied power to the one of the largest, most active mills in Montana. Mr. Kustudia explained how important the dam was to the town and industries, but also how damaging it was to the community. The same year it was built, a flood also breached the dam and consequently toxic mineral deposits Residents of Milltown were drinking water from their wells that were contaminated with arsenic and other byproducts from the upstream industries.


It wasn’t until 10 years ago that the Milltown dam was removed and toxic sediment was dredge and sent to holding ponds. The EPA and Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program has funneled in thousands of dollars in order to improve water quality and restore natural ecological processes. Mr. Kustudia says their efforts have returned the river to a more natural state. Black bear footprints line the shoreline and raptors dive bomb the river for fish.
The Milltown experience is a story of hope and restoration. Despite seemingly dark times and murky waters for many ecological and human health issues, a solution may lay down river. The Milltown State Park is a testament to time and faith. It truly was inspiring to hear how the profound problems of the Clark Fork, after and century and a half of degradation from mining, were solved though with long term ecological restoration in mind.

Mr. Kustudia’s candid and hopeful delivery of the Milltown State Park’s muddy beginnings served as a platform of enduring hard work. His mother grew up just north of the site, but still within the Milltown superfund site. However, his description held no perceivable animosity or anger toward what happened. He remained clear and objective, dead set on the goal of the project, without carrying the weight of fury I feel many of we younger environmentalists feel burdened with.
The century long history of this project, from conception to restoration, is a glimmering optimism for our generation. The inundating number of mistakes made in the name of development and progress can be addressed with the Milltown story in mind.