Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Queer Spots In and About Butte: Chapter 1

When it comes to learning about one's watershed, it is impossible to fully understand without history. What a watershed this Upper Clark Fork is and has been!
The Anaconda Standard recognized Butte’s rich history long before anyone else ever did. Beginning on March 18, 1906, the Butte newspaper, printed in Anaconda and formerly owned by the late Marcus Daly, began running a weekly column in its Sunday editions: Queer Spots In and About Butte. Let’s be clear, “queer” had yet to establish its colloquial definition in 1906; the writers were more likely using the dictionary's explanation: differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal . Live here and look around for long and you'll agree.
The first story in this interesting series featured the history of The Mining City’s precipitating plants, those being the plants that extracted copper from the metals-rich mine waters of which there were plenty by taking advantage of a simple chemical replacement reaction. Under the acid condition of Butte’s mine runoff, contaminated water flowing over tin cans and scrap iron would dissolve those metals into solution and leave behind almost pure copper.
It was a very simple method of making a lot of money without having to invest too much capital. Montana Resources still uses the exact same “technology” today, pumping Berkeley Pit water and stripping it of its copper content to the tune of about 450,000 pounds per month. At over $3 a pound, you do the math. If your curiosity is piqued, be on notice: We'll do an entire blog on the inaugural Queer Spots story detaling precipitation plants in the future.
The following Queer Spots column, No. 32, is one of my favorites relative to the Clark Fork River. It features Silver Bow Creek and the watershed’s geographic history. Published on October 21, 1906, this is arguably some of the best insight regarding Butte’s home water and the Columbia River's northeastern headwaters. It was printed only 42 years after the first discovery of gold on Silver Bow Creek (1864).
Enjoy the rich rhetorical language of early 20th century journalism and listen for the unmistakable "copper chorus". It’s a shame the newspaper didn’t pay tribute to the author with a by-line. (Note: Because of the story's original length, we will post the first half of it now and add the rest later...stay tuned!)

One of the most remarkable water courses of the state is the one which forms in the Summit valley, skirts the base of the richest mineral hill in the world, tumbles over worked-out placer beds which have yielded millions in gold, helps irrigate the farms in the Deer Lodge valley and then hurries away a thousand or more miles to the sea. That stream is known in this county as Silver Bow creek, and it is formed from the streams which have their sources in the main range of the Rockies which overlook the Summit valley. Throughout the entire valley, from the peaks which tower above the “Horseshoe” bend on the north to the Homestake and Pipestone passes to the south there are a number of little mountain streams, tossing their way through the valley to a common center, which is almost within the city limits of Butte. Principal among these streams are Blacktail Deer creek, Basin creek and Bison Creek, and they all meet to form Silver Bow creek where the Northern Pacific Railway company has its yards, just east of the site of the old Parrot Smelter.


As Silver Bow creek the water hurries along, keeping at the foot of the hill that has made Butte famous, and follows the natural valley in the foothills west of the town, passing over the old placer beds until a distance of eight miles below Butte is reached, when it plunges into a canyon, through which for a considerable part of the way there is no wagon road and where two railroads have wrestled with Dame Nature in some of her roughest moods in order to gain a thoroughfare. Once through the canyon, Silver Bow creek enters into the valley of the Deer Lodge and a few miles below it loses the name, which is famous the world over as the county in which Butte is located, and takes another, the Deer Lodge river, the contributions from the many side streams giving it a volume of water which justifies that distinction.


Through one of the fairest valleys in the state Deer Lodge river has its course, bountiful crops and grass meadows marking its way for nearly 30 miles, and again the foothills narrow down and there is almost a canyon. There is located Garrison and there the Little Blackfoot river adds its flow to the Deer Lodge river and the stream becomes known as Hell Gate. On down the valley, in more of a canyon than it is a valley, for nearly half a day’s travel by the fastest train, the stream keeps on its way until finally, just a few miles east of Missoula, the Big Blackfoot river comes rushing out of the mountains and adds its flow of pure water, crystal clear, to the murky tide which has come down from the mines and smelters of the Butte district, and the Missoula River is formed. By that name it is called during the rest of its journey through Montana, and it finally leaves the state at Cabinet to enter Idaho and afterwards lose its identity in Lake Pend d’Oreille. From this body of water the stream which was once known as Silver Bow creek emerges to be called Clark’s Fork of the Columbia and through the Columbia it finds its way into the Pacific Ocean – as a mighty river “rushing onward to the sea.”

Along every foot of Silver Bow Creek until it first loses its identity as the Deer Lodge river there are points of interest and historical reminiscences. From the place where the three little streamlets came together in the days when there was not a house to be seen in all of the valley until the present time, cherished memories have clung around the old creek. Time was when Silver Bow creek was a pretty one as it curled around the foot of the hill and dashed along the natural water course in the valley, singing merrily as it thought of the wonderful wealth of gold which it hoarded and which had been carried down from some place in the mountains so long ago that it had no recollection where or how it came to be gathered upon its bedrock. In the valley grass grew and the meadows were smiling and green. Mountain trout slept lazily in its deep pools and darted back and forth in the shallows seeking their food. The deer and antelope came to the creek's edge at evening time and drank fearlessly. Buffaloes laid about in the shade of the willows lazily during the heat of the day, or else, like the domestic cattle of today, they stood knee deep in the water, chewing their cuds contentedly.

"If it can be recalled, it can be restored."
This last description under THE STREAM'S HISTORY, provides a glimpse of what Silver Bow Creek may have resembled prior to the commencement of its use as an industrial sewer, a designation that despite the ongoing restoration efforts, still holds partly true today (Butte-Silver Bow's sewage treatment plant effluent, loaded with nutrients and ammonia, accounts for half of the stream's flow in the summer months).
Not to say we can reasonably count on seeing buffaloes lazily lounging along the Silver Bow Creek Greenway, this hindsight provides an important benchmark for the work to be done.

As ecologist Stephanie Mills states in her book In Service of the Wild, "If it can be recalled, it can be restored."

Check out the nice time lapse photo of Silver Bow Creek near Nissler that Justin Ringsak worked up at the CFWEP website (click here); and you can see raw comparison photos below. The first photo appeared in the Queer Spots of October 21, 1906; the second was taken in October of 2007 and shows the stream post restoration, albeit only a few years growth has established. It's worth noting that the 1906 photo shows a Silver Bow Creek that was hardly pristene; however, it's evident in comparison that the railroad has replaced the former course the stream once followed. (To be continued...)

Silver Bow Creek, looking west, 1906

Silver Bow Creek, looking west, 2007

Silver Bow Creek, looking west, 2007 (wider perspective)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Divides & Watersheds

Three indistinct, slightly blurred figures on inner tubes, lounging their way down a stretch of river. A photograph portraying an alien image, bright green water broken by brownish-red patches. Another photograph of water close-up, barely recognizable, scattering light so diffusely that it could be a painting done by the water itself. A 3-D mountain of reds and yellows, like something out of a sun-baked cartoon. A bulbous writhing mass entitled “It Came from the Berkeley Pit…” A painting of a “cosmic grayling” in many colors and a sort of northwest native style, against a backdrop of red fading to blue.

Those are just some of the nearly 30 art pieces at the Museum of Fine Arts Butte, 405 W Park St, until early November. The show is part of the 1st Annual (we hope) Divides & Watersheds Art Exhibition & Symposium, a public event jointly produced by CFWEP and the Butte-Silver Bow Arts Foundation designed to raise public awareness of regional restoration and watershed issues through art and education. The art exhibition opening reception on Friday, October 5th attracted a few hundred attendees throughout the evening, and the symposium on Saturday the 6th drew about 75 people over the course of the day.

Friday was all about celebrating regional art, and those artists’ perceptions of this last best place, both the untouched landscapes of Montana wilderness and the scarred vistas that provide a visible reminder that our actions have consequences, even those carried out under the good old names of civilization and progress. There was music, too, courtesy of local singer-songwriters Mike Tierney, Tim Mason, David Hobbs and Chad Okrusch. Okrusch and Hobbs’ original tune “The Great Divide” provided the perfect musical introduction for Divides & Watersheds, with the last line of its chorus trailing off into the distance, “…both sides of divide.”

Saturday shifted to a slightly more scientific gear, but a wide variety of film showings and readings gave the day a balanced rhythm. Too much went on to go into detail on every presentation, but some of the highlights included Jen Titus’ presentation on basic stream assessment, which used “streams in a box” to demonstrate differences between healthy and unhealthy river ecosystems; Montana Tech Professor Pat Munday’s (read Pat's ecorover blog here) thorough overview of the environmental and cultural history of the Upper Clark Fork Basin; and lively panel discussions on outdoor and environmental education and watershed and development issues.

The day’s poetry and prose readings ran the gamut, from Sean Eamon’s visceral and rhythmic takes on life in the shadow of smelting, to Phil Atkins’ quiet meditations on wilderness and civilization, to Dean McElwain’s story of winding through life’s divides and stumbling upon insight in the form of “watershed moments” (hear poems read by Sean and Phil here). Prolific Montana writer and activist George Ochenski also dropped in to recount two snorkeling expeditions on the Clark Fork, first with nature writer David Quammen over twenty years ago, and more recently with CFWEP’s own Matt Vincent. Ochenski painted, with usual humor and wit, a picture of a recovering river that should serve as a reminder that we Montanans can effect our environment in constructive and respectful ways. You can read Ochenski’s own account of his expedition with Matt, originally published in the Missoula Independent, by clicking here.

And if that wasn’t enough, Saturday was also full of watershed films. A local contribution from Butte artist Glenn Bodish, “The Wise River”, gave audiences a new way to look at an unspoiled local river by focusing close-up on the details of the river water itself, its sounds and textures as it interacts with the landscape around it. “The Wise River” has little to do with the science or hydrology of the Wise River, but in other, perhaps more important ways, it paints a more complete picture of the river by letting it simply present itself, rather than boxing it in with quantified chemical data or obtuse formulas for things like the total maximum daily load. Not that water chemistry and TMDL aren’t important, they are, but they don’t tell the whole story of the river.

Neither does the film “The Legendary Mountain” tell the whole story of copper mining in Butte, but, by reading between the frames of this Anaconda Mining Company production from 1974, you can get a sense of it. A classic piece of propaganda, “The Legendary Mountain” glorifies copper mining to almost humorous levels. It does accurately reflect some local history, noting the risks and hazards of underground mining, and documenting the change from underground to open-pit mining in Butte in the 1950s. And it also accurately describes just how important copper was to the industrial revolution, to the development of the modern age, and to 20th century war efforts. What “The Legendary Mountain” doesn’t do is discuss the consequences of all that copper and modernization. The Anaconda Company’s dedication to environmental health and preservation is intoned seriously over footage of glorious snowcapped peaks and pristine lakes that bear no resemblance to and are located nowhere near the company’s mining operations. Of course, the datedness of the piece glosses over some of propagandizing, but perhaps “The Legendary Mountain” is best summarized in a particularly hilarious sequence in which the narrator waxes on about the goodness of the Company and its employees over stock footage of people in offices, ending with a shot of two serious old men in suits entering an elevator while a young woman in more casual attire exits, flashing the two executives a smile. The implicit message, and I’m putting words in the filmmakers mouths here, seems to be: “The Anaconda Company… not only are we awesome at mining, but we also love women!” On the other hand, the film offers some exquisite cinematography, particularly in scenes of the smelting process. Some of the results of smelting might not be much to look at, but the filmmakers here make the smelting process itself look downright sublime.

As I wandered about the old Museum of Fine Arts Butte building near the end of the day, watching the last few artists, scientists, and regular folks processing some of what they had experienced, I was struck by the uniqueness of our situation, environmental and cultural, here in western Montana. How often, particularly in these parts of Big Sky country, can you walk into a historic building in an old mining camp, check out a wide variety of fine art and hear some poetry on the first floor, then take a walk upstairs to listen to a presentation on the science of environmental restoration or take in a film portraying the intricate beauties of the Wise River? This merger of science and education with art and entertainment could be possible only in an environment, physical and historical, as rich as the Clark Fork Basin. And what better location for such an amalgamated event than Butte, the mining city, a patchwork itself of high and low culture, wilderness and industry?

The truest success of Divides & Watersheds can be measured by the diversity of those in attendance, and the depth and richness of their experiences living and working in western Montana as active artists and scientists. The contributors to Divides & Watersheds, in their variety, character, and willingness to share their knowledge and creativity, speak to how deeply dug in is that sense of community here near the top of the continental divide. Tally-up all the paintings, photos, sculptures, films, poems, stories, science, history, and experience on display, all coming from the fine folks in and around the Clark Fork, and you would be hard pressed to find a community with more cultural pay dirt to share.

Former congressman and Butte-native Pat Williams’ keynote speech provided a great capstone to the event. Mr. Williams, in a voice that was warm with a subtle riverly rumble, began as a storyteller, recalling old Butte and comparing the energy and culture of those times with the artwork on display. He segued into a discussion of issues important to his Western Progress organization, focusing particularly on the idea of a restoration economy, challenging the old notion that development and environmental protection are mutually exclusive concepts, and pointing the way toward a future Montana that is dependent on neither natural resource extraction or tourism, but a Montana that takes care of itself and its rich landscape. The speech was received with a standing ovation.

I don’t know that any conclusions can be drawn from the response to Divides & Watersheds, but I don’t think that any need to be. The main goal of the event was to get people talking and thinking about what is going on down around that next bend in the river. That’s the first step. The next is between them and the river.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Big Day on the Big Blackfoot

It's that time of year again...chillier temperatures, crisp, colored leaves, bugling bulls and yes, fantastic field trips. Lots and lots of fantastic field trips to unique rivers with even more unique students from around the Upper Clark Fork basin. The sun has peaked over the ridge on yet another CFWEP school year...

Blackfoot Youth Field Day

Go Big, or Go Home. Why not? Let's kick the year off with a 115 fourth through sixth graders from Bonner, Lincoln, Potomac, Helmville, Ovando. That's exactly how we began this field season, and the only thing bigger than the group size was the amount of fun had by all. CFWEP teamed up with the Blackfoot Challenge, Bureau of Land Management and our friends in Missoula, the Watershed Education Network (WEN) to put on the Challenge's annual Blackfoot Youth Field Day at Garnet Ghost Town. We took the lead on the day's content as the theme was "All Things Mining."

Garnet Ghost Town History, historic mining practices, gold panning, mineralogy, stream monitoring and restoration barely scratch the surface of the six station topics that all of the kids and their teachers were treated to on September 12th. A super-hearty thanks go out to Dick Fichtler and Alan Mathews of the BLM, as well as all their staff and to the Challenge's Megan Gale who hosted the event and helped plenty in the planning. Also to NRDP's Greg Mullen; Josh Gubits & Co. from WEN; Gold panner extraordinaire, Ralph Smith and his merry gang; Ginette Abdo from the Mineral Museum; our former, yet not too distant in the least CFWEP leader Colleen Elliott, now of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, and last but not least, CFWEP staffers Jen Titus and Justin Ringsak. We'll have lots of photos from this trip and others up soon, so make sure you check back!

Drummond High and Junior High School

Our first standard five-day school stop was on September 20th with Darcy Schindler's 10th and 7th grade classes. Chad Okrusch, The Mining City's answer to James Taylor, Dave Hughes, plus John Dewey, joined the CFWEP staff in favor over working on his dissertation last Thursday to run the macroinvertebrate sampling station. Mr. Schindler's kids were on the case in fine fashion, figuring out the differences in water chemistry, bug populations and vegetation on the Clark Fork as one heads down stream. First stop was on the river near Garrison, just above its confluence with the Little Blackfoot. The second stop was right in the heart of Trojan Country at the Drummond City Park. Many thanks to the Rock Creek Cattle Company for generously allowing access for the area's kids to learn more about their watershed.
Coming up...

Friday, October 5th and Saturday, October 6th.
Best get to the Museum of Fine Arts Butte next weekend! Check out the program line-up here http://www.cfwep.org/divides.html and BE THERE! Too many cool things to list AND...IT'S FREE!!! Bring the family and enjoy some Clark Fork culture!

Other Field Trips coming up...

  • Butte Central, Misti Cunningham's freshman biology classes, October 2
  • Anaconda High School, Kate McElroy and Bob Tarkalson's Advanced Biology Classes, Milltown Dam Education Program tour with WEN, October 3
  • Butte High, Bill Callaghan's Environmental Biology Class, October 9th

Drop us a line at cfwep@mtech.edu or give us a ring 406-496-4832 if you'd like to volunteer or come observe a field trip!

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Cornish Pasty: Just a Meat and Potatoe Pie? Or An Underground Miner's Savory Savior?

When trying to teach kids about subjects that might seem complicated, like science, it always helps to use anecdotes that relate to things they can easily understand. In working with the students of the Upper Clark Fork basin, helping them to learn the health affects of some of the toxic substances found in mining wastes, like arsenic, lead and mercury, I’ve made it a point to use Butte’s hallmark entrĂ©e, the pasty.
Of course, we all like to think of the pasty being as Butte as Butte can be. However, just like the mining that made our town famous, the pasty too hails from some place else.
Cornwall, England. The rich tin and copper mines in this southwestern-most region of the Old Country can be traced to 2000 B.C. Mention of the Cornish pasty can be found as far back as the 1200s. Summing up the role of Mining in their culture is a common Cornish definition: “A mine is a hole anywhere in the world with at least one Cornishman at the bottom of it.”
When mining began to peter out in Cornwall in the late 1800s, the “Cousin Jacks,” as they were known, emigrated to the mining meccas abroad, like Michigan’s Copper Country and of course, Butte, to carry on their multigenerational skills. They also brought with them the pasty.
So how do you explain the human health affects from heavy metals and arsenic through a hand-held meat and potato pie? It turns out that the Cousin Jacks didn’t just eat pasties because they tasted great and were more filling than any lunch you could take underground.

Talk to anyone who’s worked below or take a peak at a historic photo of the working folk from Butte’s heyday: Underground mining is a dirty business, perhaps the dirtiest of them all. A shift underground would cover you from head to toe and then some in the mine’s dirt, dust, muck and mire. And although they were mining copper, silver, tin, whatever the moneymaker happened to be in the rock, there came with it all the other geologic tagalongs not so desirable, like arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, toxins that will eventually wreak havoc on a man’s health.
The two major pathways for these poisons to make it into our bodies is either breathing it in (inhalation) or eating it (consumption). Once a man went underground to work, there wasn’t any coming back up to the surface until the end of his day, unless he came up dead or maimed. In the days before respirators and dust masks, there wasn’t much a miner could do to keep from inhaling the metals-laden dusts, save for holding his breath – an impossibility over an entire shift. And there weren’t any faucets or methods of washing away the grime from your face or hands before lunchtime.
Prior to the pasty, miners in Cornwall probably ingested an equal amount of poison for every bite of nourishment he ate at lunch. Chronic diseases from arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals poisoning like cancer, ulcers and Mad Hatter’s disease were traced to the ingestion of these ubiquitous mining toxins early on, but that didn’t mean a miner was going to stop eating underground. Hats off to the Wives of Cornwall for fashioning a tasty solution to the problem.
The traditional Cornish pasty had a pinched crust much thicker than the ones on the pasties we eat today (see top photo). The large, thick crust on the side of the original pasties was put on to serve as a handle, something the miners could hold on to with their filthy hands, while they ate the rest of the pie untouched and therefore, untainted with whatever might be clinging to his fingers.
Another note of difference between today’s pasty and the original is that the first pasties usually had rutabagas or turnips in them along with the standard meat and potatoes, as well as a compartment that held a fruit filling at one end to serve as “dessert.” When the miners were finished eating the filling, all they had to do was chuck the crusty handle and go back to work. It was also said that the throwing of the crust into the mines was a token of bribery or maybe even appreciation to the underground spirits or “knockers,” blamed by the workers for causing rocks to fall on them or other dangerous happenings often resulting in death. There were well over 2,000 men who died in Butte’s underground mines over their operation; this number does not include those who perished from contamination-related disease or other ailments after they came back to the surface. Only the knockers know how many pasty crusts were left behind and eaten.
So the next time you don’t have the time or facilities to wash your dirty hands before eating lunch, grab on to a pasty and don’t forget to leave the crust behind. Your body and tastebuds will thank you...and so will the knockers.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Butte's "Insignificant Mountain"

The Mining City is surrounded by majestic and interesting landforms: the Highland Mountains, the East Ridge of the Continental Divide, the Big Butte and Timber Butte are all familiar spots on the skyline for the people who call Butte home.
Mother Nature placed an equally imposing geologic signpost of the Summit Valley to the north and east. It shows up in many a photo, but sadly goes unrecognized by the majority.
Rampart Mountain stands sentinel above the rich veins and strongly morphed topography of Montana’s greatest mining landscape, only nobody seems to know her name.
Can I summon up a chorus of David Allen Coe’s “You Never Call Me by My Name”?
Perhaps it is that she fails to bear a covering of trees, a snow-capped peak, a famous lighted letter, or a holy inhabitant like its topographical neighbors. Or maybe it’s because our sights from inside the city are just so trained to look in other directions. Regardless, the fact is as hard as the rock of which she’s made and as cold as the incessant winds that whip her: Rampart bears the notoriety of Butte’s insignificant mountain.
With a summit of 7,789-feet, the treeless Rampart makes up an imposing, starkly contrasting segment of the Continental Divide, possibly the greatest surrounding The Mining City. How her name mostly escapes the masses is a dirty shame. With the exception of the Pipestone area and the Humbug Spires, it also bears some of the most spectacular outcrops that the Boulder Batholith formation has to offer.

Aside her spartan beauty, Rampart bears some additional significance. The Continental Fault, a “young” phenomenon by geologic time standards runs along the western front (facing Butte). That’s why Montana Resources’ current operations are named The Continental Pit. The fault is also responsible for the steep escarpment that likely gave the mountain its name. (Note: look for an upcoming edition on The Continental Fault featuring an interview with Mike Stickney, Director of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology’s Earthquake Studies Office). The word rampart is defined as “a broad embankment raised as a fortification” or a “wall-like ridge” according to Merriam-Webster on-line.
My 12-year old daughter and I recently hiked to the peak of Rampart and took in the most amazing view of Butte’s mining in its entire unappreciated splendor. “WOW,” is the one word that comes to mind.

And despite the lack of trees, there was abundant sign of deer, elk and moose, probably feeding on the productive stands of aspen, bitterbrush and currants that cover the mountain, despite the fact you can’t see them from afar with your naked eye. In fact, there was a Boone & Crockett 200-class mule deer buck bagged on Rampart just a couple of hunting seasons ago.

In my research and runabouts trying to find out more about Rampart, I also learned that the smaller mountain attached to Rampart to the south, the one that is currently being mined by Montana Resources, also has (soon to be had) a name: Sunflower Mountain. Sunflower’s final bloom will be the copper, molybdenum and silver she yields to the world economy and to providing good, reliable labor for the 350 miners of Butte until she’s gone.
However, if the records are right, Butte doesn’t have to worry about losing its Rampart to mineral development. In addition to its new distinction as the “insignificant mountain,” Rampart owns the dubious title of being the center of the least productive mining district in The Treasure State’s storied mining history.
As described on its website, the Montana Abandoned Mines Program says of the East Rampart Mountain or Elk Park mining district,

Although numerous prospects scattered through the area concentrated on vein mineralization, there has been little additional development even since 1935.
The Butte area to the west and the Basin and Helena area mines to the east were very productive, the area in between, which includes Elk Park (aka East Rampart Mountain), were very minimal mining districts. What little production that has occurred in the district came from two lode mines: the Montreal Star and the Sunset. The Sunset, although rarely active, was developed by the Sunset-National Mining Company in 1906 when a gold and silver bearing ore body was found. No production was recorded until 1935 and 1936 when 87 tons of ore reduced to 64 ounces of gold, 128 ounces of silver, and 8 pounds of copper. Although production records are available only for 1940 to 1942, the Montreal Star produced gold, silver, copper and lead ore…Because the district has produced little if any ore, there has been no attempts in the mining literature to categorize the area as a mining district.

Just one more reason, I guess, as to answer why Rampart has gone unnoticed. Quite simply, what you see is what you get. And for me, that’s more than enough of a reason for us to start calling her by her proper name.
And I'll hang around as long as you will let me
And I never minded standing in the rain
But you don't have to call me darlin’, Darlin’
You never even call me by my name"

Friday, May 18, 2007

Chasing Bighorn Sheep & Finding Montana's Hidden Treasures

As Matt keeps us updated on happenings out west at the River Rally, CFWEP's resident AmeriCorp VISTA volunteer, Justin Ringsak, offers a glimpse into the world of CFWEP research projects in this guest edition of the CFWEP blog.

It is amazing what you can find in Montana if you are willing to get a little sweaty tromping up and down a hillside or two. On an unseasonably warm spring Sunday in southwestern Montana, I joined Matt Vincent (CFWEP Science Coordinator extraordinaire), Bill Callaghan (Butte High School science teacher, CFWEP Advisor, Water Teacher of the Year, and generally good guy) and Butte High students Eric Henrich and Robert Carver to follow along on an expedition to track the radio-collared Bighorn sheep recently transplated to the Highlands Range south and west of Butte by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Eric and Robert are two of a group of about 12 dedicated Butte High students enlisted by wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori. The students have been working on the project as volunteers for the past few months, heading out on weekends to see what's happening with some of Butte's newest neighbors.

On past trips, car troubles have been the norm. Following the faint beeps of the radio collars requires a good deal of driving up and down some of Montana's rougher roads, and sometimes a slap from the hand of destiny will land your truck in a creek bed or blow a tire. This has been especially true when Bill has been along on the Bighorn tracking trips. But Bill and his karma (or is it car-ma?) had no part in the first car mishap of this trip, as Robert's truck started smoking on I-15 a few miles north of Divide, not ten minutes into our expedition. After some deliberation, it was decided that Robert would, unfortunately, have to head back to town to address the demands of his truck and its smoky tail, while Eric jumped into the trusty ol' Montana Tech standard-issue suburban with me, Bill and Matt. I felt a little sorry for Eric, having to put up with three so-called "authority figures" for the day, but his patience was not without its rewards.

Smoking truck behind us, we drove to a hill on the west side of I-15 near Melrose. Looking back east, we had a wide early morning view of the westslope of the Highland Range, near the Camp Creek and Soap Gulch drainages. Matt and Eric alternately swung the antenna around and listened for the telltale beeps of the Bighorns' radio collars. We did pick up a few faint signals, but it was difficult to determine their direction because of bounce from the hills behind us.

Undeterred, on a hunch and a tip received at a quick pitstop for caffeine in Melrose, we drove east, up into the Camp Creek drainage. It wasn't long before we started to see signs that we were in the right neighborhood. A few miles up the road, next to the Camp Creek reservoir, Matt spotted a lone Bighorn not fifty feet uphill from the road.

This wayward fellow wasn't burdened by a radio collar, and he wasn't too shy, either. He patiently posed for a few photos before trotting up the road at a leisurely pace, pursued slowly by Bill and his camera.

We had found a Bighorn, but not the Bighorns we were searching for. A few more rounds with the antenna and more beeps told us that we were close, but with the steep walls of the Camp Creek drainage looming around us, it was difficult to determine in exactly what direction our sheep were located. So we piled back into the trusty ol' Montana Tech suburban and continued up the road, finally emerging into a fairly wide valley that offered a nice panoramic view of the Highland peaks as seen from the west. While we took a lunch break, a red-tailed hawk glided above us, looking for some lunch of its own. Despite the early time of the season, wildflowers also added some color to the landscape.

From there we looped back to the west, heading down the Soap Gulch road, stopping at a high point to swing the antenna around yet again. The increased volume and frequency of the beeps told us that we were getting close. While we scanned, Matt spotted a coyote across the hilltop. The coyote gave us a quick glance and rambled, in no particular hurry, out of sight. At the roadside, Bill reverted to his former life as a botanist and dug up a mushroom and a wild plant with a thick, possibly edible root.

We had stumbled our way over a ton of interesting distractions, but only one lone, collarless Bighorn Sheep. After a drive halfway down Soap Gulch and still no sheep, we stopped below a rock quarry. Matt and Eric scampered up the ridgeline to do another sweep with the antenna while Bill and I wandered the hillside, observing the variety of vegetation and the colorful geology revealed by the quarry.

Eric and Matt confirmed that we were still on the right trail. Based on their readings, they guessed that we might have better luck if we bore north, up to the top of the ridgeline between Soap Gulch and Moose Creek. We found a road heading in that direction near the bottom of Soap Gulch; it wound up a series of switchbacks along a drainage until it reached the ridgeline. As soon as we reached the open space above the switchbacks, we caught site of a herd of Bighorns on the opposite side of the drainage, just a short distance away from where Matt and Eric had been hiking above the quarry. They had been closer than they realized. As Eric, Bill and Matt trained scopes and binoculars on the sheep to determine their numbers and how many were radio collared, I scampered down the drainage to try for some better photos. At first, the sheep kept their eyes on me as I moved, but they didn't seem too concerned by my presence. As I drew closer, a deer moving up the hill passed by the herd, keeping a wide berth. The Bighorns all turned away from me to watch this passerby- the deer must have been more interesting than me.

With his spotting scope, Eric observed that three of the sheep in this herd were collared, leaving a fourth mystery signal from a sheep we couldn't confirm with a visual sighting, although it seemed likely that the mystery signal came from one of four other sheep we barely spotted higher up the hill. Vanna was particularly interested in finding two radio-collared sheep that hadn't been sighted in the last several weeks, so, with no sign of those two sheep yet, we headed on up the ridge.

A short distance up the road we caught sight of several elk in a patch of trees. They quickly disappeared, but as we continued on Matt spotted a shape darting over the ridgeline. From the size and dark coloration, we guessed it was a wolf who had been stalking the elk. Around another bend we encountered a manhole-sized metal covering in the ground at the roadside. We had seen a few of these elsewhere along the road, and Matt decided to stop the suburban so that we could investigate. He pulled off the lid to reveal a valve on a pipeline, and, more importantly, a black widow spider who had made a home by weaving her web on the inside of the lid. The telltale red hourglass marking on her underbelly stood out against the backdrop of the lid, and, with a body roughly the size of a nickel or quarter, this spider seemed unusually large for the elevation and climate, probably a result of the luxurious hidey-hole she called home.

Matt carefully returned the lid and spider to their proper position, and then it was back into the suburban as the road sloped down toward the Moose Creek drainage. But a few snow drifts gave us pause, and we finally turned around to head back the way we had come, opting to avoid the chance that Bill's karma would get us stuck in the only patches of snow we had seen all day.

But the afternoon still held a few surprises. As we rolled back down to Soap Gulch road and made our way west toward Melrose and I-15, a big rattlesnake, about five feet long, slithered across the road in front of us. We stopped so that Matt and Bill could follow the snake into a nearby patch of sagebrush. Matt and Bill poked at the rattler with a few flimsy twigs. The snake wasn't too enthusiastic about all the attention, and it rose to strike a few times, but, risking life and limb, Matt managed to snap a good picture of it as it was coiled in the sage.

We piled back in to the ol' Montana Tech suburban, but only made it a few hundred yards past the rattlesnake before it became clear that Bill's bad vehicular karma was still with us. The rear driver's side wheel locked up, and a bit of experimenting told us that it wasn't planning on budging anytime soon. But Bill had a guess as to the nature of the trouble- something to do with a "self-regulating brake mechanism." With no cellphone service, we decided to see what we could do. Luckily, the suburban did have a jack and a tire iron, so we raised it up and began to remove the trouble tire. But even this job wasn't without its obstacles. One of the nuts on the tire had been misthreaded, and it was now a permanent fixture on the wheel. Matt managed to put the stubborn nut in its place by completely twisting it off, and we were finally able to get the tire off and take a look at the wheel. It seemed that Bill's diagnosis was correct- several pieces of metal inside were bent and contorted into odd shapes, jamming up and preventing the wheel from turning. Bill assured us that they were non-essential parts, so we took out the remnants, put the tire back on (now one lugnut short), and we were on our way back to Butte strictly via frontage roads, considering the questionable state of the trusty ol' Montana Tech suburban. But it did the job- we made it back without further incident.

Although we never did find the two mystery sheep, the trip couldn't be called anything but a success. That's the wonderful thing about a simple Sunday drive through the Montana backcountry- you might not find what you're looking for, but chances are good that the landscape will lead you to all sorts of unexpected wonders.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Answers to the Noxious Weeds Quiz

Below are the answers to the 10 photos posted last week as CFWEP's "Know Your Noxious Weeds" Quiz. I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that my job was very easy in that NO ONE tried out their noxious knowledge...zip, nada, nothing!!!?
Of course, the bad news is that we don't have any winners in the War on Weeds and we still have a whole pile of CFWEP stickers to give away.
Don't worry, we'll have more quiz opportunities for you in the future. Hopefully we'll get some participants on the next one!!!

Knowing your noxious weeds is important, as a landowner, a sportsmen or just part of being a well-informed citizen. Here are the answers to the quiz, along with a little extra information on each one:
1. Baby's Breath; NOXIOUS. This pretty, but not too pretty ornamental is commonly seen in floral arrangements. Unfortunately, like a lot of "pretty ornamentals" it is also HIGHLY INVASIVE, especially in disturbed areas. Baby's Breath is not on the Montana Noxious Weed list, but it's a big enough problem in Butte that it's on the Silver Bow County noxious weed who's who. See a vacant lot in Butte? Then chances are, you're probably looking at Baby's Breath too.

2. Houndstongue; NOXIOUS. Houndstongue is a growing problem in a lot of riparian areas and is a Category 1 (that's BAD) Montana Noxious Weed. A native plant to Europe, it contains a toxin that causes liver cells to stop reproducing. And if that's not bad enough, have you ever been "licked" by a houndstongue? If you've ever come home or back to your car from a walk and found dozens of little burrs sticking to your socks, shirt, pants, waders, pretty much anything...YOU'VE BEEN LICKED! Make sure you remove the burrs before going somewhere else: these are the plant's seeds and we don't want to give houndstongue any help in spreading.

3. Spotted knapweed: NOXIOUS. By far the most infamous of Montana's noxious weeds. Category 1: 'Nuff said. If you don't recognize this one, chances are you are a noxious weed yourself.

4. Matrimony Vine; NOXIOUS. This is another one of Butte-Silver Bow's noxious weeds. A strong colonizer of mining contaminated and disturbed areas, this bushy shrub is a beautiful specimen of a noxious weed. It's bright red-orange berries are a spectacular contrast to the pretty purple flower in the photo, and it provides a great source of food and excellent habitat for a variety of song birds and small mammals in Butte, like the feral cat. However...(with noxious weeds, there's always a "however")...the reason this member of the nightshade family got its name is fairly simple: once you have it, you're married to it, so to speak. Its hard to get rid of and it has a unique penchant in the Butte area to find a crack in a vacant building (many times in occupied building's too) foundation and quickly fill the entire basement, attic or any other available living space with bush.

5. Bitterroot; Not Noxious. Also called "rock rose" the bitterroot as you should know is Montana's state flower.

6. Field bindweed (aka Morning Glory); NOXIOUS. Another pretty but dangerous plant. Field bindweed, a member of the morning glory family, forms thick mats along the ground in a lot of pastures and other disturbed landscapes. It, like knapweed and houndstongue, is a Category 1 Montana Noxious weed.

7. Plains Prickly Pear; Not Noxious. How would you like to go for a barefoot jog across a prairie full of this sticky fellow? John Colter did. One of Montana's only native succulents, this cactus has a showy yellow bloom early in the summer (June).

8. Truffula Tree; Not Noxious. For those of you who are Dr. Suess fans, here is the victim of Geisel's classic book, The Lorax. "The touch of their tufts is much softer than silk and they have the sweet smell of fresh butterfly's milk." I have yet to find one growing in Montana.

9. Leafy Spurge; NOXIOUS. Because of its ridiculous invasiveness and the even more ridiculous difficulty in controlling its infestations, Leafy Spurge just might be Public Enemy No.1 when it comes to noxious weeds. Spurge can "pop" its seeds several meters and its roots have been documented to extend as deep as 20 feet into the soil. With these two methods of invasion, spurge is one tough customer, earning it a Category 1 listing.

10. Purple Loosestrife; NOXIOUS. This is a Category 2 Montana Noxious Weed list. A riparian invader, it is also a "pretty" noxious species, another escaped European ornamental. You can see from the photo that when loosestrife finds an area it likes, nothing else stands a chance.

These are just a handful of the weeds that are marching their way across Montana. I strongly urge you to spend a few minutes on the Department of Agriculture's Montana Noxious Weeds website at http://agr.state.mt.us/weedpest/noxiousweeds.asp . There is lots of interesting information here, as well as a list of contacts who could come to your class to help you learn more!
That's it for the quiz...
As a fun exercise to get your in-quiz-itive minds in shape for CFWEP's next test, I invite you all to take the Fish, Wildlife and Parks' easy to use, on-line Bear Identification test. Here's the link: http://fwp.mt.gov/bearid/default.html
It's somewhat of a secret (maybe it's not), but most mountain ranges in western Montana have at least some grizzly bears. The FWP quiz is a requirement for anyone wanting to hunt black bears. But it's also a good test of your bear identification skills. Is it a black bear or a grizzly? You need an 80% to pass...See how well you do!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Know Your Noxious Weeds" Quiz

Just for fun, below are 10 photos of plants. Identify them all and tell us which ones are listed as noxious weeds in Montana and which ones are not. (Note: they may not be on the state weeds list, but all of the noxious ones pictured below are on at least one of the 56 counties' lists.) Name and list all 10 correctly, and you win a CFWEP sticker!! Not to mention, you'll be a little bit more the wiser in the endless "War on Weeds."










Good luck! When you think you have all the answers, send them to me at mvincent@mtech.edu (be sure to include your mailing address if you want a sticker!). I'll post the answers...and our winners, next Friday.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Noxious Weeds: Where Are They Going To Show Up NEXT??

This column we are pleased to welcome our first guest blogger: Soil scientist Tom Keck of Bozeman. Keck received his PhD in Soil Science from Montana State University in 1998 and was the lead field scientist for several years collecting the data for Silver Bow County's soil survey. He currently works in Bozeman as a Soil Scientist for his own company, Northern Rockies Soil and Water. Tom is also a valuable cooperating scientist with CFWEP, helping improve place-based science education in the Clark Fork basin as a summer teacher training instructor (see photo). If you're reading this and are a scientist living or doing research in the Clark Fork and would like to contribute a guest blog, drop me a line at mvincent@mtech.edu . We'd love for you to help us spread science through the valley!

In the “War on Weeds”, spotted knapweed and leafy spurge stand out as the major weed control challenges in Silver Bow County. Each weed has infested thousands of acres in the county and there is potential for them to infest even greater acreages.

Weed infestation reduces property values, increases soil erosion, reduces areas’ ability to support wildlife or domestic livestock and presents tremendous weed control costs. Countywide, the government currently spends nearly $400,000 annually on weed control efforts; this does NOT include additional costs that individual landowners pay to control weeds on their own. Noxious weeds are an expensive issue to say the least!

Weed species often appear to be everywhere in infested areas. Spotted knapweed in the Butte area provides a good example. Once you learn to identify this species (pictured below), it seems to be growing everywhere you look. On closer inspection, however, you can find areas in and around Butte where spotted knapweed is not doing so well. There are many sites where it is completely missing, while in other areas, native plants are at least holding their own against the noxious invader.

An ongoing study funded by the Mile High Conservation District through the Conservation Districts Grant Program has been using field data from numerous locations in Silver Bow County to look at patterns in the distributions of spotted knapweed and leafy spurge relative to landscape, plant community and soil properties. The study looks at habitat preferences in existing infestations to gain a better understanding of how these weed species would be expected to behave on sites that have not yet been infested. The immediate goal is to find differences among habitats in the potential for future infestation by spotted knapweed or leafy spurge.

This research could ultimately lead to development of site specific strategies for weed management. In such an approach, the combination of weed control methods used for a species such as leafy spurge on a dry, rocky hillside would likely be quite different from those methods used to control spurge along a moist drainage bottom. Identifying habitat differences is a first step. While some of the results found in the current study were expected, others have been quite interesting.

Both spotted knapweed and leafy spurge originated in grasslands of Eurasia. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the highest infestation levels found in Silver Bow County were in grassland areas. Neither species is very competitive on forested or riparian (near stream) sites in our area. Woodland areas, with open Douglas-fir stands, are intermediate in terms of infestation potential. Neither weed species likes to get their feet (roots) wet for long. This explains their relative absence in consistently wet soils along streams and in other wetlands areas.

Elevation, slope steepness and slope direction (aspect) have a strong influence on the occurrence of both spotted knapweed and leafy spurge in Silver Bow County. The highest infestation levels for spotted knapweed occur below 5,800 feet in elevation while moderate infestations levels were found up to 6,600 feet. For leafy spurge, the highest infestation levels are restricted to elevations below 5,600 feet. South facing slopes (hot and dry) were the most favorable for spotted knapweed while leafy spurge was most prevalent on level to gently sloping areas (deeper soils; deposition areas). Both species appear to be least competitive on north facing slopes.

Overall, the worst leafy spurge infestations were found on very deep well drained (normally dry) soils along drainage corridors. This was especially true where basin wild rye was the primary grass species present. The second most common occurrence was on droughty, shallow soils on volcanic hills such as along portions of I-90 in northwestern Silver Bow County. While leafy spurge fairs poorly on soils formed from decomposed granite, spotted knapweed does especially well on the very deep, coarse textured granite soils common in the Summit Valley.

Those are just a few of many results. At the conclusion of this work, maps will be produced through the Butte-Silver Bow GIS Department showing infestation potential throughout the county. This information will be used to target weed control activities and to support future research on site specific weed control strategies.

As a landowner or tenant, you should be aware of noxious weeds growing on your property. Know how to identify weeds, at least spotted knapweed (below left) and leafy spurge (below right). Scout your property regularly and note their presence if you find them. Pay special attention to where they are growing and begin weed control or encourage the landowner to begin weed control as soon as possible. Remember, early detection and control is by far the most cost effective means to fight noxious weeds. The sooner you get them, the less likely they will be to spread out of control. There is a reason they call them invasive: Weeds infestations will continue to grow if left unchecked and the cost of control grows with them the longer you wait to take action. For more information, please contact the Butte-Silver Bow Weed Control Office at 497-6460 or weeds@bsb.mt.gov.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Milltown Dam

Now is the time to go to Bonner to see the Milltown Dam and Reservoir before it is gone. The reservoir is already effectively gone and with construction on the Clark Fork by-pass channels already underway, it won't be long (probably a couple years) before the whole area looks completely different.

Following is a story I wrote that appeared first in The Butte Weekly paying historical respect to the Milltown structure, as well as some forward speculation of what might happen during its removal. Let's be clear: once the dam is gone, the confluence of two of Montana's greatest rivers - The Clark Fork and the Blackfoot -- will be restored and the future of its fisheries will be bright as its been in over 100 years.

Coincidentally, CFWEP in partnership with Missoula's Watershed Education Network (WEN) has just completed the Milltown Education Project. The Milltown project, which was run on the ground by WEN and administered by CFWEP, took schools from Missoula, Bonner and Anaconda on field trips to the dam and reservoir and provided over 100 students with an educational experience at Milltown during its important transformation.
CFWEP is continuing trips to the site, with a date scheduled later this month for 45 Butte High students and a tentative trip for Powell County High students being planned for February.

Read the story and if you still want to learn more, the Missoula County Environmental Health Department (http://www.co.missoula.mt.us/wq/Milltown_Dam/Milltown%20Dam.htm), the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee (www.cfrtac.org) and the Clark Fork Coalition (www.clarkfork.org) websites all have more information. EPA project manager Russ Forba and the Natural Resource Damage Program's Doug Martin are also great contacts and can be reached at their respective offices in Helena.

The Milltown Dam and the 1908 Flood

If the EPA, State of Montana and construction contractor Envirocon get their ways – with a little cooperation from Mother Nature – the century-old Milltown Dam will be removed from the Clark Fork River sometime in 2008.

The Milltown, as Norman McLean would say, is located “at the junction of great trout rivers” (the Blackfoot and Clark Fork) just 7 miles upstream of Missoula near the burg of Bonner. The structure stands as the downstream extent of the nation’s largest contiguous complex of federal Superfund sites, beginning over 100 miles upstream in Butte.

Since the dam was completed in December 1907, it has been the holding stop for all of the contaminated sediments flowing from the Anaconda Company’s mega-mining operations in Butte and Anaconda. This amounts to nearly 7 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments (note: 1 cubic yard = 1 pick-up truck load). Roughly a third of this total – over 2 million yards of the most contaminated sediments – will be removed and sent on a train back upstream to the historic waste impoundment known as the Opportunity Ponds.

Also to be dumped at the Opportunity site will be over 4 million cubic yards of tailings scraped from the floodplain of Silver Bow Creek and anything else nasty that’s removed from the 800-plus acres designated for remediation in the stretch of the upper Clark Fork River between Warm Springs and Garrison.

That’s a lot of contamination. But it’s nothing to the Opportunity Ponds.
The Ponds served as the waste disposal unit during the majority of life of the 585-foot Washoe Smelter in Anaconda. In fact, they aren’t “ponds” anymore, but more accurately a 10-square mile area of blighted desert. To be clear, the volume of wastes being dumped in Opportunity from the various Superfund cleanups can be compared to adding an additional tablespoon of waste to a 5-gallon bucket full. It’s just not that big of a deal – not until it comes time to clean up the Opportunity Ponds.

So let’s switch our focus back downstream to Bonner. In 2003 with then-governor Judy Martz’s stamp of approval, it was decided in the EPA’s Record of Decision to remove the Milltown Dam and a bunch of its contaminated sediments.


The reasons are many and they’re good ones:

· The dam and its sediments create a groundwater contamination plume of arsenic in the town of Bonner;
· The dam is old and unstable and it blocks the passage of native fish to spawning tributaries in both the Blackfoot and Upper Clark Fork river drainages;
· Fixing the dam properly would cost nearly as much as tearing it out and contaminated sediments wouldn’t be removed to the full extent needed.
· The dam, even in optimum condition, doesn’t generate a significant amount of electricity to justify its existence.

However, this wasn’t always the case. Let it be known that when the Milltown Dam is removed, so will be one of the last standing significant remnants of Butte’s mining history in the basin.

Q. Who do you suppose was responsible for building the Milltown Dam?

A. William A. Clark.

Q. And why do you think he built it?

A. To keep the copper coming out of the ground in Butte.

This was indirectly done by supplying electricity to his lumber mills in Bonner and Missoula (one, good producing underground mine in Butte went through a trainload of timber every week), which also indirectly electrified and helped grow The Garden City in its early days. The Milltown Dam – one of the first major river dams constructed in the Columbia drainage – also marked the birth of the Montana Power Company. Furthermore, Marcus Daly built the first dam in the Upper Clark Fork basin on the Blackfoot just upstream from Bonner about 20 years before Milltown. Coincidentally, Daly’s dam, built to slow down floating logs so they could be retrieved by his own lumber mill, was torn out last fall in preparation for the Milltown’s removal; Bob Gannon removed the Montana Power Company in 2001 in preparation for his own mysterious disappearance.

Built using the standard “timber crib” technology of the day, the Milltown was an engineering stalwart, garnering lofty boasts from its chief financier, Mr. Clark just after its completion. Clark was quoted in the Daily Missoulian to the effect that the Milltown Dam was solid as a rock and would stand through thick and thin, forever more.

Damned if Mother Nature wasn’t listening and just so happened to be in the mood for a fight.

Just a few months after the construction of Milltown Dam was completed, the Clark Fork witnessed the largest flood its pale-faced inhabitants had ever seen. That spring of 1908 the river gorged to 46,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), carrying away near everything in its widened path (Note: the USGS stream gauge below the dam currently reads ~1,700 cfs or roughly four percent of the 1908 flood). Trees, bridges, fences, animals, pert near anything in the flood’s way that wasn’t nailed down and nailed down good. And there were also tailings. Lots and lots of tailings, the result of decades of dumping from mines, smelters and concentrators of The Richest Hill on Earth. It’s fair (and accurate) to say that the majority of contaminants now requiring cleanup in the Silver Bow Creek and upper Clark Fork’s floodplains were deposited in this one storm event.
One big flood + the improperly disposed wastes of the World’s largest mining camp = 120 miles of intense river damage.

As for Mr. Clark’s timber-crib dam, sturdy as it may have seemed to men, it didn’t stand a chance against a taunted and scorned Mother Nature (see photo). The massive flows topped the dam and the river began filling the powerhouse at an alarming rate. With standing water inside the dam control house reaching four feet, something had to be done quickly. Being a mining magnate has its benefits in dire times such as these.

Clark summoned a team of Butte’s underground miners – contracted as explosive experts in this case – to hurry downstream to the rescue. In order to relieve the dooming pressure on the dam and save Clark’s flooding powerhouse and the sole generation source of the infant Montana Power Company, the miners carefully and strategically blasted the south side of the dam to smithereens.

The river temporarily and partially ran free, saving the Milltown structures. Crews and horses spent the rest of the year and into 1909 reconstructing the dismantled dam; less intensive repair efforts were required standard from flood damages until MPC finally applied a concrete veneer over the timber frame in the early 1980s.

Shortly after the dam was veneered, arsenic was detected in the domestic wells of several Bonner/Milltown residents. Ever since science has been slowly but surely been leading policy makers toward the ultimate decision in 2004 to take out the state’s largest toxic sediment trap, thereby saving one town’s drinking water and paving the way to restore the confluence of two of Montana’s greatest rivers.

The estimated clean-up price tag: $111.6 million, which is the projected cost to remove the dam and powerhouse and 2.2 million cubic yards of the nastiest sediments to be sent to Opportunity; and the rebuilding/restoration efforts of putting the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot back into their new, man-made “natural” stream beds. This cost was estimated using several assumptions, the largest one being that Mother Nature will cooperate.

The devastation that followed the wake of the 1908 flood has not been witnessed since on the Clark Fork or any other river in southwest Montana for that matter. To most of us we call that type of storm “the big one.” Hydrologists have a slightly more scientific term: the 100-year flood.

By a non-hydrology definition, the 100-year flood is a flood which on the average will be equaled or exceeded once every 100 years. More accurately, it should be defined as the “1% flood,” because it has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that right about the time the dam is being removed it will be statistically right about time for us to expect the upper Clark Fork to get its next big flood. What would happen if Mother Nature decided to strike her wrath twice in the same place?

In regards to stream restoration and general land reclamation projects, if She decides it’s time for a 100-year flood in 2008, the estimated cost of completing the Milltown dam removal and restoration can reasonably double. And that’s not counting the additional costs of damage to the downstream Clark Fork and any equipment that might get swept away.

Reclamation/restoration projects need time to stabilize before they can be expected to handle a storm – any storm. Vegetation needs to mature and kinks need to be worked out. If one were to ask an expert how long he/she would reasonably guess this time would be to achieve stability in order for the project to survive the impacts of a 100-year flood the answers would range no less than five years to upwards of 20.

In short, we need to go ahead with the work as planned and hope for the best in terms of Mother Nature’s cooperation. Though in hindsight, we shouldn’t taunt her with any promises of invincibility. After all, the Clark Fork belongs to her and it’s up to her what fate she has in store. At least this century around we’re trying to expedite her work rather than impede it.