Below Montana's famous big sky, the environmental wounds of history fester. Along the banks of the Clark Fork, for example, from Warm Springs to Milltown, one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States stretches across 120 miles of communities and streambeds.
Large swaths of the Clark Fork have slowly been transformed into moonscapes as thousands of tons of toxic soil have been excavated to remove mine waste. The pollution, which was created by unregulated mining practices, began decades ago in the late 1800s, and continued well into the 20th century. The result: Entire streambeds have had to be amputated and rebuilt in an effort to restore what was once a thriving, diverse ecosystem.
In 2012, the last piece of the Milltown Dam, located at the tail end of the Superfund site, was removed, making the area one of the first completed sections of the cleanup. Part of the site's redevelopment plan involved turning more than 500 acres of pine forest and floodplains into a state park. Michael Kustudia, manager of the new Milltown State Park, says for the last 10 years the "three Rs" have guided his work: reclamation, restoration and redevelopment. Kustudia, whose family roots in the area go back to the 1800s, says his job has been a labor of love, and it's his hope that the park will become a common ground for people.
It was 107 years ago that Milltown Dam began flooding the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot, while also collecting a bed of toxic sludge from upstream mining operations. In the early 1980s, arsenic was discovered in local wells, but it took almost three decades for the cleanup to begin. Relocating this sediment waste from the dam site to the town of Opportunity sparked one of the more contentious and public feuds that have plagued the cleanup, and, at times, it overshadowed the progress of reclamation.
"You hear this narrative that this affluent community is dumping its waste on this poor working-class community, and that's not just true in my mind," Kustudia says. "These towns have a lot more in common than not, and they've all suffered from a post-industrial hangover."
Even after the dam was successfully removed, along with much of the toxic sludge behind it, industrial gravesites continue to plague the area and prolong the ongoing development of the state park. International Paper, the company that took over operations of the old lumber mill adjacent to the dam site, owns one of the park's proposed main access points.
- photo by Chad Harder
"It would be a perfect way to get into the park," Kustudia says. "International Paper has offered us a donation of that land, but it has a landfill from the former mill that's full of old wood waste and boiler waste, and we don't know exactly what else." Kustudia sums up: "It's really difficult building a park in an industrialized zone." Despite the setbacks, he hopes to break ground on developing the main part of the park this year.
An overlook of the dam site has been open since 2014, and it affords visitors a sweeping view of Milltown and the Blackfoot and Clark Fork. For outsiders, however, the view can seem dismal. Abandoned logging roads are gouged deep into the surrounding hillsides, offering a sad reminder of an industry that's come and gone. Clear-cut trunk stubs from 200-year-old trees rot in the floodplain below. And the closed lumberyard is an eyesore in a town whose once-thriving businesses are now shuttered and decaying.
But for countless people like Kustudia, who had a role in the transformation of the reservoir and dam site, the view is nothing short of a miracle. Willow saplings, he points out, have now taken root along the once-toxic riverbanks. For an unincorporated community with less than 2,000 residents, the chance for revival doesn't come often.
"Milltown is going through a renaissance," Kustudia says. "It had such an identity of a lumber town, of an industry town. It's kind of being reborn now."
When the park is complete, it will offer trails and access for hikers, floaters, mountain bikers and anglers. Meanwhile, on May 1, the floodplain, which was once buried by the reservoir stretching behind the Milltown Dam, was opened to the public for the first time in more than a century. Interpretive displays along the trail to the overlook now guide visitors through the site's complex history and redevelopment. On this section of the Clark Fork, visitors can see for themselves that life is finally returning. Today, young cottonwoods bloom under a warm spring sun, and field crickets chirp as lark buntings nest on a bluff overlooking two rivers that flow into one.
Erica Langston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer in Missoula.