After 100 Years, A Montana Creek Returns To Life

Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer led off the fishing on Montana's Silver Bow Creek late last month, marking a milestone in the restoration of the Clark Fork River watershed. Even the careful coaching of 85-year-old Bud Lilly, the dean of Montana's fishing guides and the pioneer of catch-and-release flyfishing, could not raise a trout for the Governor. But after over a century of Silver Bow Creek being officially dead (no fishing regulations for the creek even existed until this spring), the fish are back.

Governor Schweitzer, who has been Governor since 2005, has been an outspoken advocate for restoring the Clark Fork watershed and other lands and waters damaged during the devil-take-the-hindmost pillaging of Montana's resources during the heyday of the Copper Kings and other extractive industries. It's fitting that Schweitzer was among the first to fish Silver Bow, even if, as described in the Billings Gazette, he got skunked.

Silver Bow Creek is part of the watershed destroyed by mining in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The watershed and surroundings have been a federal Superfund site since 1983, and the constant bleeding of mining wastes into the creeks and rivers have rendered them almost lifeless, until now, as we start to see the fruits of a cleanup that began in 1999. So far, fishermen and biologists have found native cutthroat trout, brook trout, and rainbows in Silver Bow.

I worked on the Clark Fork River in the 1990's, as a laborer, running jackhammers in the water to set anchors for erosion control mats, sawing line-of-sight for crews surveying the constantly shifting mine wastes, rafting-in supplies in the cold of October or the spring snows of March while sandhill cranes flew high over the quiet, almost fish-less waters. I saw a lot of that poisoned watershed, and most of what I saw made me sad. Now, after a $120 million cleanup, the fish are coming back fast on Silver Bow, and the rest of the river -- freed by the removal of the Milltown Dam, which had created a vast pool of contaminated tailings downstream near Missoula -- the whole river system is recovering. The sun shines a lot brighter there now. In the story linked above, Bud Lilly says it best: "That creek is more valuable than silver or gold."

An interesting follow-up note to the Milltown Dam story: The estimated costs for cleaning up the Upper Clark Fork watershed are about $1 billion. William A. Clark, one of the most prominent of the Copper Kings (whose tainted election to the US Senate in 1899 launched a scandal that led to Montana's Corrupt Practices Law of 1912, limiting the amount of money that can be donated to political campaigns) built the Milltown Dam in 1906, to generate electricity for a sawmill that supplied timber frames to his mines upstream. William A. Clark's daughter, Huguette, died one year ago on May 24th, 2011, just two weeks' short of her 105th birthday. She left a fortune of over $400 million. Ms. Clark had been a recluse for decades and had been living secretly in a room at the Beth Israel Hospital in New York since at least 1988, even though she owned at least three mansions, one of them, in Santa Barbara, California, worth an estimated $100 million. An investigation into the loss or theft of millions of dollars from her estate is ongoing.