River Conservation 101

In an era of massive oil spills and increasing energy demands, why does river conservation still matter? Because free-flowing water is fun. Because it's good for the national chutzpah. And because, as these four comeback stories illustrate, saving rivers is more profitable than exploiting them.

Jump in, the water's fine: The cleanup of the Clark Fork River will create some 3,500 jobs.    

Restoring Montana's Clark Fork River
ONE HOT DAY last July, a group of us drove to the town of Turah, Montana—two bars, one camp-supply store—and dropped two rafts into the loveliest Superfund site in America, the Clark Fork River. My companions were four scientists and a schoolteacher, and we were there to see the remnants of a dirtier era.

We floated until we passed a kid flying a kite onshore. Soon after, I heard a low growling. The rumble amplified until we rounded a bend and came upon the source of the noise—trucks—at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. Where the Milltown dam had sat for the past century, plugging up the Clark Fork and serving as a catchment for tailings from an upstream copper mine, the riverbed was now dry. Dump trucks and backhoes crawled between blackened tree stumps, removing arsenic-laden sludge. What the river ran through here, at the point where it met the Blackfoot—the waterway that famously haunted Norman Maclean—was a concrete gutter, a diversion skirting the old dam site.

Our party was the second group to float to the dam site since the removal. (Montana governor Brian Schweitzer had floated through to the cheers of a waiting crowd one week earlier.) Still, we had the privilege of seeing a river in a state of remedial distress. I turned to one of my rafting partners, Matt Daniels, a hydraulic engineer hired by the state of Montana to rebuild the Clark Fork's natural channel through the old dam site, and asked what his plan was. He shrugged.

"The goal is to rebuild a natural floodplain," he said. "We have an idea of where the river used to flow, but it's going to go where it wants to go."

THESE DAYS, Montana's fastest-growing industry is restoration, and ground zero for the boom is the Clark Fork. The cleanup of the 120-mile upper river will create some 3,500 jobs over the next decade. Much of the money funding the new "restoration economy"—Schweitzer's favorite buzz phrase—comes from the energy company ARCO, which has owned the mine responsible for the Clark Fork's degradation since 1977.

To call this comeback unexpected would be like calling the 2004 Red Sox World Series victory a nice little turnaround. For most of the 20th century, the state's economic policy went like this: Ranch, log, and mine—quickly. Those industries created jobs and forged a defiant spirit in many Montanans, but recently the zeitgeist has shifted.

"Part of it was miners and loggers saying, We need extraction, but we also need to value the environment," says Jim Kuipers, a former mining engineer who now advises government officials cleaning up the Clark Fork. "But one of the biggest things was that the Superfund designation brought jobs."

The Clark Fork flows 320 miles through the western part of the state and into Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho. The river's tributaries include the Flathead, the Bitterroot, Rock Creek, and the Blackfoot— geologic stars of Montana's $240 million-per-year angling industry—so the fact that the Clark Fork is the most polluted waterway in the state is ironic. The river is hemmed in by train tracks on one side and I-90 on the other, hard lines of transportation that have cut off the floodplain and shortened the river by 13 miles over the past century. The headwaters? Silver Bow Creek, a stream in Butte that's been catching runoff contaminated by the tailings of a massive copper mine since the 1880s.

In 1905, the copper baron William A. Clark began building the Milltown Dam at the town of Bonner, and over the next century the dam was transferred among energy companies. By 2000, it produced one-tenth of 1 percent of the state's power while employing precisely two dam operators. Milltown did, however, function as an effective holding tank for Butte's mine tailings. The upper river has been designated a Superfund site—a toxic-waste source the federal government helps clean—since the early eighties, when Bonner residents discovered arsenic in their drinking water.

Since obtaining the Superfund designation, Montana has received some $300 million in federal money and won some $200 million in lawsuits from ARCO, which was bought out by the much-maligned oil giant BP in 2000. Now, after a couple of decades during which grassroots organizations pushed for dam removal, that money is putting people to work. Timber companies bid for contracts to rebuild riverbanks; engineers like Daniels redesign river channels; former miners dredge Silver Bow Creek.

The work won't dry up anytime soon. The removal of the dam was crucial, but the Clark Fork's headwaters still need cleaning, and conservationists point out the necessity of rewatering the river's smaller, lesser-known tributaries, which have long been siphoned off for agriculture.

"There's simply more business in restoration," says Karen Knudsen, executive director of the local Clark Fork Coalition, a nonprofit that led the push for dam removal. "We want this to be a global example of how a damaged watershed can be fixed."

DURING THE SAME TRIP to Montana, I also floated the Blackfoot. This was partly out of professional interest and partly because it was the peak of fishing season. Ponderosas lined the banks, trout slapped the surface, a flotilla of rafts full of undergrads passed.

Today, the Blackfoot is about as pristine a river as you'll find in the lower 48, but not so long ago it was a mess, too. The Blackfoot fishery nearly crashed in the seventies and eighties, courtesy of a dam made of gold-mine tailings that blew out near the river's headwaters in 1975. Until recently, logging was ubiquitous here. (When Robert Redford shot the film version of Maclean's A River Runs Through It, in 1991, he headed a couple of hundred miles east, to the Gallatin. Missoula rumor has it that Redford chose the Gallatin because the Blackfoot's banks were too chopped up.) In the early nineties, concerned locals started cleaning the river and buying up nearby land to donate to the Forest Service. This year, the Nature Conservancy will complete the purchase of 170,000 acres in the river valley from a former timber giant.

I floated an eight-mile section of the upper river with M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and Grant Kier, executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, a partner in the Conservancy deal. We were supposed to be working, but the cutthroat trout distracted us.

Eventually, I asked a question, something related to the land grab. Happy to relay the company line, Sanjayan began to reply, but his rod bent to the water, then sprang back, whiplike. The line dangled broken and limp.

"Oooh, oooh, it was as big as my arm!" he yelled. "Dude, you're making me miss fish!"

So we shut up and fished until we came to our take-out, a bridge preceded by a small rapid occupied by a canoe that appeared to be stuck. The paddlers, who were profoundly drunk, had attempted to run the rapid, a Class II, backwards. They had failed. One waved to us: "Hey, maaaan, can we get a lift?"

Now that, I thought, is what a river's supposed to look like.

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