The Clark Fork Coalition’s Eight Gr8 Trout Streams campaign will re-water, rehabilitate, and reconnect critical trout streams in Montana’s Upper Clark River basin.
“If we leave her alone, she’ll take care of herself… Mother Nature is always going to try to heal herself,” lifelong Montana resident Tim Flynn tells me as we look over the confluence of Warm Springs and Silver Bow Creek, the headwaters of Montana’s Upper Clark Fork River. There is a slight look of newness to the area—the native plants are growing, but young. The creek banks are alive, but the willows aren’t overflowing up and around the meandering stream path. Downstream, deer fencing remains intact, protecting newly planted vegetation around the reconstructed section of the Clark Fork. Everything appears healthy and safe; and, for the first time in 150 years, it is.
Phase 1 of the Clark Fork Superfund Complex project was completed in 2014. Excavators removed 330,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil (polluted by toxic mining waste that inundated the river when tailings piles washed away during the 1908 flood) and replaced it with new fill and over 130,000 new plants. The river and its streams are returning to life, and quickly.
If anybody understands the impact of this rebound, it’s Tim. His great-grandfather worked for Anaconda Copper (the company whose mining and metals processing practices were ultimately responsible for the massive river contamination), walking 20 miles a day to inspect the settling ponds for leaks. His grandfather was a safety engineer at the smelter for 47 years. His father served as Montana’s Director of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. “There was a lot of money made at the expense of the environment, and now there is a lot of money being made cleaning up the degradation of the environment. Is that worth it?” Tim pauses to let his question sink in. He understands how murky the confluence of a mining economy and the environment can be. The history of copper mining is in his blood, but so is the Clark Fork and her tributaries.
The Upper Clark Fork River (the headwaters of a 22,000 square-mile watershed) flows between the three largest wilderness complexes in the Northern Rockies. But nearly 150 years of intensive mining, logging, and grazing have severely damages this vital ecological corridor, leaving its streams degraded, de-watered, and disconnected. Thanks to decades of scientific research and citizen advocacy, a 1983 lawsuit filed by the state against ARCO, and a Superfund settlement in 1986, the overworked river basin is finally on the mend. Massive reconstruction projects at Silver Bow Creek upstream and the Milltown Dam site downstream were great successes, and the 22-phase Superfund clean-up along this 45-river-mile stretch of the Clark Fork in between is off to a strong start (the 15-year project began in 2012). But the river won’t be whole once the Superfund project is complete. That’s where the Clark Fork Coalition’s Eight Gr8 Trout Streams project comes in—what’s left to do beyond Superfund? The answer lives in the tributaries.
The Eight Gr8 critical tributaries (see sidebar) have been disrupted and de-watered by agriculture; but they can be fixed. The vital and diverse fisheries of the Upper Clark Fork basin can be restored. Re-water, rehabilitate, reconnect—that’s the plan. Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that (scroll down for details). But what’s not complicated is how easily you can help—you donate, and we match your donation. It’s that simple.
“My dad could never have imagined the Clark Fork as a clean river. He was told, ‘Don’t you ever, ever go in the Clark Fork. It’s toxic.’” Tim Flynn was packing up his fly rod when I arrived to meet him, fishing a river that was posted as hazardous for most of his life. “But now it’s a place you can go on and recreate.”
You don’t have to live near the Clark Fork to understand how a river is the central bloodline in a community. But what you may not understand, if you grew up along cleaner waterways, is what happens when your river basin is toxic. Rehabilitating streams and rivers has impacts far beyond the biological ones—rivers sustain us, connect us, inspire us. It’s our job to respect that, and to take care of that.
Tim Flynn remembers when the river was so polluted he couldn’t take his family there. Today, he doesn’t take his local trout stream for granted. “I can catch five different species of trout five minutes from my house in a free-flowing stream. Is that worth protecting? Is it worth doing everything we can to ensure that my grandkids have the same opportunity? Absolutely. That’s my mission and that’s the Clark Fork Coalition’s mission too.”
1. Cottonwood Creek
2. Peterson Creek
3. Dempsey Creek
4. Racetrack Creek
5. Modesty Creek
6. Dry Cottonwood Creek
7. Lost Creek
8. Warm Springs Creek
The Clark Fork Coalition and its partners will:
1. Restore flow to de-watered creeks by partnering with ranchers to improve irrigation efficiency and by water rights leasing and acquisition.
2. Remove fish passage barriers by reconnecting streams, replacing culverts, redesigning irrigation diversions, and installing fish screens on irrigation canals.
3. Improve riparian habitat by cleaning up abandoned mines, reducing sediment pollution, altering grazing practices, planting vegetation and installing fencing, and stabilizing channels.
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