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Ochenski: Float for the future

Opportunities abound if we just remove the dam

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The news is anything but cheery these days. Millions of Americans are losing their retirement savings as the stock market takes a journey to the center of the earth, sucking down state and federal budgets as trillions of dollars simply disappear. Increasingly desperate politicos offer increasingly delirious plots for everything from national security to economic development, virtually all of which will cost taxpayers even more and fail miserably. But every now and then, something happens to bring shining hope into our lives, and the mass “Milltown to Downtown” float on the Clark Fork River last weekend did just that for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Montanans.

Although it was organized by the Clark Fork Coalition (www.clarkfork.org), the float lacked virtually all the earmarks of a formal event. Instead of speeches and banners, chants and protests, people of all ages and families with their kids and dogs hit the cool, refreshing water on a scorching Saturday afternoon. Riding hundreds of inner tubes, rafts, canoes, and kayaks, the huge flotilla filled this little-used section of the Clark Fork River for the two-hour trip from below Milltown Dam to Missoula’s Kiwanis Park.

Encountering such a crowd on a normal Montana river outing likely would have disgusted most of the participants and sent them fleeing for quieter, less-populated waters. But on this day and for this event, it was a joy to look upstream or downstream and see the colorful procession following the river, bobbing through rapids, and disappearing around the bends. Simply put, people came out in droves to express their love for the bright stream of life that flows right through the center of Missoula. “We knew the majority of the community supports this issue,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, the Clark Fork Coalition’s executive director. “But we were overwhelmed to see such an enormous, joyous group of families and friends showing their support for the river. It shows how galvanizing positive change can be.”

Like many Montanans, I have long considered this stretch of river as tainted by the millions of tons of toxics stacked up behind the ancient, crumbling, Milltown Dam. As part of the largest Superfund site in the nation, the Upper Clark Fork has always been someplace to avoid in favor of the plentiful, pristine waters with which our state is blessed. Thanks to the float, that opinion has changed. As I drifted lazily downstream, the simple appreciation for the true potential of the Clark Fork became manifest.

True, there’s still the dam and its burden of toxic sludge. Equally true, it is all too apparent that this section of Montana’s largest river has been sadly neglected. From the steep-banked, noxious weed infested put-in to the numerous carts tumbled down the hillside behind the Eastgate Shopping Center, it will take plenty of work to turn the Clark Fork from a liability to an asset. But for those who care to look, the vision of a brighter future awaits if, as the Coalition bumper sticker says, we “remove the dam” and “restore the river.”

First and foremost, it would be extremely irresponsible for the adults of this generation to pass on the ticking, toxic, time bomb to our kids. There’s literally no argument to be made for leaving the sludge sitting upstream from Missoula, and upgradient from its drinking water aquifer. The toxics have already contaminated groundwater supplies near the dam and, as everyone knows, water flows downhill. Unfortunately, the latest study by engineers suggest the dam is moving downhill, too. No surprise, really, considering its age and the rock-bin construction hiding beneath its concrete skin.

But go beyond that and think of what the river would be like without the dam and the sludge. Being able to float the Clark Fork or Blackfoot all the way to downtown Missoula would be a tremendous economic boost to the area. Unlike the fake “economic development” scams perpetrated by our current batch of lame political leaders, a free-flowing, free-floating river into town would generate a whole new wave of possibilities. “Drift in” dining and drinking establishments could cater to Missoula’s considerable and expanding population of river lovers. The full-day, 20-mile trip from the Rock Creek confluence to town would give Missoulians the chance to “float home.”

Plus, the more people using the river, the more likely that it will get cleaned up and stay that way. Instead of businesses and homes “turning their backs” on the Clark Fork, a river view would become an asset. Instead of being a toxic sludge deposition zone, the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork would become a play area for kayakers, canoeists, and rafters. Instead of lowered land values because of the toxics, the area would become highly desirable property, generating revenues for local governments while supplying the populace with a tremendous recreational commodity. Instead of dragging the shallow reservoir trying to eliminate pike, a healthy native fishery would relieve pressure on the upper Blackfoot, allow upstream and downstream passage for endangered bull and cutthroat trout, and create a valued asset for the state and nation.

There are some who lack the imagination to envision this cleaner, better option for the Clark Fork, the Blackfoot, and the Missoula Valley. As puzzling as it seems, they would sacrifice the river’s enormous potential for good to retain a decrepit dam, a sludge-filled reservoir, and the slow leaking of poisons into the valley’s groundwater. Simply put, they are living in the past.

When the float ended at the take-out behind the Edgewater/DoubleTree Inn, the steep bank required considerable effort to haul up the canoes, rafts, kayaks, tubes, and coolers. In the spirit of the day, everyone pitched in to carry everything up the hill—and those hundreds of people helping each other said it all. In our increasingly violent and hostile world, this event wasn’t an angry protest, but a tremendous outpouring of visual public support for a clean river, a healthy environment, and a better future for us all. 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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