Fisheries Conservation photo

I’d like to celebrate something here today that has been almost 20 years in the making and that will be enjoyed by future fishermen and anyone who loves rivers and fish, for centuries to come. On December 16, workers completed the removal of Milltown Dam from the confluence of the mighty Blackfoot River (made famous in Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It) and the even mightier Clark’s Fork of the Columbia, about seven miles upstream from Missoula, Montana.

The rivers flowed free for the first time since 1908, when mega-entrepreneur and U.S. Senator William A. Clark had the dam built to provide electricity to the sawmills that provided the timbers used in his copper mines. That same year-1908- a monster flood washed toxic wastes and tailings into the Clark Fork from mines as far away as Butte. (see photos of the 1908 flood here) All of these, and all those from the years of mining and floods that followed, eventually ended up piled behind the Milltown Dam.

The result was a dying river, contaminated wellwater for the residents of Bonner and Milltown, a designation of an EPA Superfund site for the Clark Fork River floodplain, and a conundrum: the dam was old and crumbling, but stacked behind it was a monstrous amount of toxic material that had the potential, if ever released, to destroy the Clark Fork River downstream for miles, maybe even have impacts clear to the Columbia itself. The ice jam of 1996, rumbling and grinding its way down the Blackfoot, carrying boulders and trees and parts of houses in its grip, packed into the slackwater behind the dam. The ice tore up the bottom of the reservoir and released toxins that killed fish downstream. And it made the dam look like what it really was: one of America’s greatest liabilities. Something had to be done.

And so it was. On June 1, 2006, the reservoir was drawn down, and the work began.

Removed from the dried-out reservoir behind the dam through countless man hours of dozer and trucking work, engineering feats, and just plain hard labor, were more than 3 million tons of toxic sediments. Hundreds of thousands of seedlings of willow and other bank-stabilizing trees were planted, acres of erosion fabric laid down by crews of tough men and women working long days in cold and heat and wind. Due to hard work of a different kind–deal-making, paper-signing, endless meetings and negotiations and partnerships–most of the riverbanks and associated lands will be open to the public for fishing and hunting and watching the river go by. This is the largest river restoration project of its kind on earth right now.

Reporter Rob Chaney, of the Missoulian, wrote the best account of the day, and my main hunting partner, Andy Belski of River Design Group, Inc. who has worked on the dam removal, sent me this video:

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer has some interesting comments on environment and economy as he speaks at the site.

Ten years ago, a lot of people had this dream to restore and clean up these iconic Montana rivers, create jobs, and give a big short- and long-term economic boost to the communities of Milltown and Bonner at the same time. It’s a big accomplishment, by the state of Montana, the EPA, and a moderate-sized army of American working people. And yes, I remember the early-90’s rally along Interstate 90 when the dam removal was still a question of if, and how, and the naysayers were out in full blast.

I remember the signs those naysayers held up- “Kill the Hippies, Save the Dam.” Wonder where they are now?