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.