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Phoenix spawning: A dam’s timely end brings a river of renewal

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It seems almost unbelievable: A slender, 3-year-old rainbow trout recently swam from the Clark Fork River to its ancestral spawning grounds in the Big Blackfoot. The trout is the first in more than 100 years to heed the ancient call to ascend beyond the confluence of these two rivers.

Since 1907, the lower Clark Fork has been divided from its upriver tributaries by the Milltown Dam east of Missoula. The 720-foot long and 21-foot high dam was built to provide electricity, primarily for a lumber mill, which produced timbers for building the mines and smelters in the nearby copper-producing cities of Butte and Anaconda.

During a century of mining near its headwaters, the Clark Fork flushed downriver to Milltown Reservoir tailings laden with copper, lead, zinc, mercury and arsenic, all heavy metals deadly to aquatic life and dangerous to people. Some 6.6 million cubic yards of toxic sediment were trapped behind the dam. Cracks and voids that developed in the aging structure made it prone to failure, threatening the catastrophic release of toxic mine tailings into the lower Clark Fork and contaminating local drinking water.

That potential for disaster is now being averted.

Under one of the most extensive projects ever tackled through the EPA’s Superfund program, workers are dismantling Milltown Dam and removing the mining wastes. In March, hundreds of us stood on the river’s edge and watched as an excavator removed a plug of dirt, opening a channel and bypassing the dam. We applauded as the first trickle of water seeped through the narrow channel and quickly widened. It was thrilling to see the Clark Fork, at its confluence with the Big Blackfoot, running free for the first time in a century.

Less than two weeks later, a biologist discovered that a lone rainbow trout, radio-tagged and numbered 23-29, had moved 15 miles past the old dam to the shallow gravel riffles in the clear cold waters of the Big Blackfoot. A few months from now, tiny fry may emerge seeking safety, shelter and food under the protection of the river’s bank. If so, they will eventually move downstream and, upon reaching maturity they, along with a quarter-million other fish from the Clark Fork, will again move inexorably to the place of their origin. Restoring the river’s free flow promises to revive an ancient cycle of renewal.

That first extraordinary rainbow trout symbolizes the promises of tomorrow here in Montana and throughout the Rockies. That promise is the flipside of the industrial revolution: new opportunities for clean development and recreation, salaries and benefits for our workers, and profits for our businesses. One senses the enormous economic and environmental potential of thousands of similar, if smaller, projects throughout the West. There are, for example, 160,000 abandoned mine sites in the nation—most of them strewn across the Rockies—and 186,000 miles of old and now unused timber roads that should be either repaired or removed.

Yesterday’s scars on our landscape are today’s pay dirt, as are the streambeds and banks in need of restitching, the overgrown forests that are increasingly vulnerable to unnaturally intense wildfires, the urban brownfields and high-plains grasslands that need reclaiming.

With this new Restoration Economy beckoning, we must proceed with purpose and wisdom. Each Western state needs a coordinated restoration agenda. Montana’s Legislature, with encouragement and support from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, appropriated $34 million in new restoration funding and, most critically, created an office of Restoration Coordination within the state’s Department of Natural Resources. That office is now engaged in the essential first steps of the creation of a Restoration Economy—developing policy and purpose.

With a little foresight and a lot of effort—including funding—the West can launch this new endeavor. The rewards are significant: an improved environment, a reinvigorated economy with trails, parks, rivers running free, and trout able once again to follow their ancient instincts.

Pat Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A former nine-term congressman, he is currently the Northern Rockies Director of Western Progress and teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula.

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