Missoulians suffering from modern environmental angst due to the city being downstream from one of the nation’s largest toxic sludge disasters may take some comfort in American Rivers’ recently publicized list of America’s 13 most endangered rivers in the nation. The Clark Fork ranked 13th on the list, although the focal point of the listing was not the 120-mile metals-tainted stretch terminating at Milltown Dam, but the proposed Rock Creek mine downstream near Noxon. The reason: To make American Rivers’ list, you had to apply. Since the nomination process was initiated by the Rock Creek Alliance, whose efforts are based on preserving their namesake watershed, preventing further mines in the Clark Fork watershed was featured as the most pressing issue.
Still, a rigorous nomination process did much to create a broad-based constituency among local environmental groups, and no one at the press conference at the Boone and Crockett Club Monday morning was about to engage in petty provincialism over whose pending disaster was more urgent. Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas and Montana State Rep. Paul Clark offered their visions of what the listing meant for the Clark Fork, and local fishing guide John Herzer also claimed some minutes at the dais in defense of continuing the clean-up of the Clark Fork.
After the meeting, Herzer offered a river rat’s perspective on the whole affair. “It’s absurd to me that we’ve got a billion dollars committed to the restoration of the river, and then there’s this proposal to undermine the whole effort with another mine,” he said. “We should be thinking of bull trout the size of steelhead migrating in their traditional habitat, not a mine.”
“Since this mining project was first unveiled in the mid-’80s,” noted Clark Fork Coalition program director Karen Knudsen, “the public’s attitude toward the Clark Fork has shifted from exploitation to care. That has translated into a huge and unified push to help this river rebound.”
Dori Gilels from the Rock Creek Alliance also urged Missoulians to take heart at the surge of public support under which the Clark Fork cause has grown over the past decade. “We should be pleased that American Rivers chose the Clark Fork for their list, but none of this would be possible without the public input. We have had a tremendous influence on this process—the nation needs to know what is at stake here.”
Will the listing affect the chances that Milltown Dam will be cleaned up and removed? “There’s a long road ahead for a clean-up,” observed Gilels, “but the dam is such a looming threat. Native fish will lose eventually if the process isn’t started now.”