River enthusiasts will finally be able to launch their boats from the confluence of the Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork this fall. Maybe.
Transforming the former Milltown dam Superfund site into a state park has taken longer than anyone envisioned. The scenic overlook, initially conceived as a way for the public to view ongoing remediation, didn't open until the contaminated soil had already been hauled away. Montana State Parks has had the money and the plans to build park facilities at the confluence since 2010, but a nagging road access issue has prevented shovels from hitting dirt.
The last roadblock was finally lifted April 10, when the agency announced its acquisition of a 10-acre property donated by the International Paper Company, a deal that took years to seal. Though state officials remain reluctant to say when Milltown State Park will open to the public—maybe this fall, maybe next spring—park manager Mike Kustudia can at least say this: "Hopefully we'll be breaking ground sometime in June."
Developing the confluence area is the first phase in turning the 535-acre park into a hub for local river travelers and trail users. Plans call for paved parking, a boat launch, trails, latrines and interpretive panels. The roughly $2 million project is being funded primarily through proceeds from the Natural Resource Damage Program created as part of a state settlement with Atlantic Richfield Co., or ARCO, over historic polluting of the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.
Construction at the confluence couldn't begin until the state obtained permanent public access to the site. The only viable access road was owned by International Paper, and crossed a property that also contains a landfill. The land deal began inching forward in fall 2015 after International Paper agreed to split the property into two parcels and donate the portion with road access to the state.
"We realize how long folks have been waiting," Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional parks director Chet Crowser says. "If there was the world's award for patience, I think we could find any number of people to give it to in relation to this project."
Still, for residents upstream of Milltown, the progress downstream might seem enviable. On April 7, the Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a long-running lawsuit against ARCO brought by nearly 100 residents of Opportunity, the tiny community where the Milltown reservoir's contaminated sediment was dumped. Residents claim an EPA-mandated cleanup didn't go far enough to remediate the soil on their properties.
The court is expected to rule on the case later this year.