Photo by: Yellow Dog Flyfishing

There are ancient red ochre handprints high on the overhanging white limestone wall, in an unclimbable place with no ledge to stand on. The river purls and coils against the base of the cliffs, and we pass beneath the prints, in wonder, pulled inexorably downstream in the big self-bailing rafts, loaded heavy with five days’ worth of gear and food. Mystery abounds here in the dramatic, almost surreal canyon of Montana’s Smith River, from the strange pictographs of hands and turtles, rattlesnakes and long-horned bison, to the deep and shadowed plunge pools where big brown trout feed on crawdads and stonefly nymphs. Every bend (and there are hundreds, in 59 miles of river) brings new visions: A 1000-foot tower of eroding stone. A wide meadow of emerald grass. A flock of avocets plunging in a sudden tan and white whirl to a landing at the edge of the water.

I was invited on this Smith River float last April, when a friend got the coveted permit (over 7300 people applied for one last year, and about 1100 are issued) and I just dropped everything and started packing. The Smith is the most popular river trip in Montana, a state not exactly deprived of fishing hotspots, wild rivers, and places to seek adventure. And the Smith–where almost every serious Montana outdoorsperson, from the Governor down to the poorest trout bum, at some lucky point in life gets to visit–is everything it is cracked up to be, and beyond.

Copper Mining and the Smith River

In 2012, a Canadian mining company called Tintina Resources announced a plan to dig an exploratory mining shaft big enough to drive a truck two miles deep into the Little Belt Mountains, searching for copper on private land in an area that had long been suspected of having a rich supply of the ore. The exact location of the exploration–just north of White Sulphur Springs, a half mile or so from Sheep Creek–caused a lot of attention, because Sheep Creek is one of the major tributaries of the Smith River, and it enters the river just below Camp Baker, where almost every floating party puts in, increasing the river’s flow exponentially and providing one of the most important rainbow trout spawning streams in a huge drainage that is otherwise pretty dry. The mouth of Sheep Creek is familiar to almost every floater and wade fisherman that knows the Smith.

For many Montanans, who as a rule support natural resource development but are also on too-familiar terms with the history of the mining industry in the state, the siting of the exploration, even though it was almost 20 miles from the Smith River itself, raised a crescendo of alarm bells. The controversy began as soon as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved the permit for the exploratory shaft. Environmental groups filed lawsuits, and, as reported in Montana newspapers, residents began a social media campaign called Save our Smith, replete with bumper stickers, sign-ons from fishermen and outfitters, and support from a wide array of citizens who love the river. The situation has escalated to what one newspaper has called “The Battle of Black Butte” (the current name of the proposed mine, which started out as the Sheep Creek Project).

When Field & Stream ran a blog post last April about the proposed mining operation written by Sarah Grigg, who was a guide on the Smith, the level of that controversy soon became apparent. Tammy Johnson, of the Montana Mining Association, and a lobbyist for Tintina, wrote a memo for her organization, saying that Field & Stream had made “outlandish claims” about the proposed mine’s threats to water resources in the area, and encouraging MMA members to actively refute what Johnson called “the hyperbole” of quotes from Montana’s Trout Unlimited about the project. She also wrote that Sarah Grigg worked for a Bozeman-based business called Yellow Dog Flyfishing Outfitters, and recommended that MMA members consider outfitters other than Yellow Dog Flyfishing Outfitters.

The MMA memo made newspapers across Montana.

Jim Klug, of Yellow Dog, was furious. “These people targeted my business, and they didn’t even do their homework,” he pointed out when I called him. “Sarah Grigg doesn’t even work for us anymore.” That said, Klug continued, “Sarah knows exactly what she’s talking about. She’s a conscientious journalist and I support what she wrote 100 percent. It was an excellent story about what’s happening with this proposal.” Klug said he felt like he’d been put into a David versus Goliath situation: “We speak out for clean water and for the river, the very things that our business depends on, and then we get attacked for that? The best thing that can come out of this is that it keeps this mining proposal front and center in everybody’s minds, and it will make people understand just how important the Smith River is to so many people. We’re going to keep speaking out for what we believe in and for what supports our business, and we will not be silenced.”

Tammy Johnson told me that the memo was a direct result of the lawsuit filed in March against the award of the exploration permit, and a growing feeling that the project was under fire before most people knew anything about it. “The reason the Montana Mining Association wrote that memo informing its members was that Tintina was pretty excited about getting that (exploration) permit,” Johnson said. “The Department of Environmental Quality had found that there would be no impact on water quality or quantity from that exploration, and then to have the intimation that the exploration would cause that kind of trouble…ordinarily an exploration permit is pretty minimal, because the disturbance is pretty minimal, but with this one, the process was extensive, and DEQ found that there would be no impacts.”

Tintina Resources has now abandoned the attempt to obtain the exploration permit, and is now working on a full-blown proposal for a permit to begin mining operations.

Montana Trout

Photo by: Yellow Dog Flyfishing

Tintina’s New Plan

Ms. Johnson recommended that I call Jerry Zeig, Vice President of Exploration for Tintina, who grew up in White Sulphur Springs, and has been looking for copper in the Little Belts for much of his career.

“I grew up on the Smith River,” said Zeig, from his home base in Spokane, Washington (“I had to move to Spokane in 1982 in order to work at home,” he explained). “We moved onto a ranch in the upper Smith in 1960, and lived there for about 25 years. We sold it in the 1980s, after I graduated from U of M (University of Montana) and went on the road as a geologist for a mining company.”

Working around White Sulphur Springs, Zeig found the deposits at Black Butte, but copper prices were low at the time, and the company decided not to explore further. Looking back, Zeig says, he’s glad that decision was made, because development now is much different than it would have been then. “We have so much change in the management of mineral properties since then, changes in regulations, all of it. Our philosophy is to use foresight and the best engineering to protect those water resources. This is a personal thing for me. It has to fit into the community, and the last thing I would ever want is to mess anything up for my neighbors.”

The proposed copper mine would all be underground, Zeig explained. “We’re permitting what’s called the Johnny Lee deposit, and there’s 11 to 14 years of work there. There’s the Lowry deposit, which could add another 5-6 years to that, and there’s more exploration potential, so we figure 15 to 20 years total.” The mine can use what is called a “paste backfill”–a slurry of concrete and tailings, to fill in areas that have already been mined, Zeig said. “And the other half of the tailings will have to be managed on the surface. But that’s not rocket science. If you have inept people doing it, you have problems, but done properly, you keep your tailings from being exposed to oxygen so you never get the acid mine drainage.” That’s done, he explains, by keeping them underwater in ponds, until you can put them back in the mine. “The water will come from the mine itself, where it will have to be pumped out so we can work it.”

Zeig says that the mine will have a full plan for closure and reclamation before they ever began work. “In today’s world, you design the closure before you start, and that’s major difference with the past- there were no plans for closure in the old days.” The ultimate plan is for the tailings ponds to be capped with concrete, and the land returned to grazing for cattle, he said.

There are a number of questions that cannot be answered at this time, when even the preliminary work on the project, should it be permitted, is two or three years away. The mine could change ownership, or be purchased by an overseas company, which Zeig said should not change the way it is operated. “You don’t get a huge shift in philosophy when a project changes hands these days. There does have to be a good, effective and clear-cut regulatory process that will work to protect the environment, and one that does not change every day, so that we can actually design a project and carry it through.”

The Black Butte Project promises an economic shot in the arm to White Sulphur Springs, and to a part of Montana that, Zeig says, is losing population and suffering economically. “When the timber mill closed in the 1980s, it was devastating. My high school class was 35 kids, and the current class is 12. Meagher County was recently ranked one of the poorest counties in Montana, and we’re talking about adding 200 staff jobs, starting at $50,000 and going up to $80,000 a year. This can be a way to really jumpstart Meagher County and get it all back together.”

Zeig and just about everyone else here will readily admit that mining has an extraordinarily troubled legacy in the American West. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is taking a very cautious approach to commenting on the Black Butte Project, recognizing that this will be one of the more controversial issues in Montana for some years to come. “Of course we have concerns about anything of this nature going in at the headwaters of the Smith, and above one of our most pristine and important state parks (Smith River State Park),” said MTFWP’s Region Four Supervisor Gary Bertelotti, based in Great Falls. “We’re not opposed to these kinds of projects as long as the protections for the other resources there are definitely in place. When they get their plan in place, we’ll be working hand in glove with them to make sure we can address all the concerns–the fishing issues, all the recreational opportunities below the project.”

For a number of years I worked as a mine reclamation laborer, from Peabody’s Kayenta coal mine in northeast Arizona to the abandoned and highly destructive Zortman-Landusky gold mine in the Little Rockies of Montana, where taxpayers have been shelling out clean-up money for decades now. I’ve hammered stakes into erosion-control blanket on the gold mines in Lead, South Dakota, and stood on the edge of the mighty Berkeley Pit in Butte with its vast and growing lake of poisonous water. I live just north of the Mike Horse complex of mines, the ones where the tailings ponds blew out in 1975 and dumped heavy metals into the famed Big Blackfoot River. The public money still flows there to try and fix the damages and prevent new ones from emerging from those long-ago mines. It all tends to breed a skeptical nature. Montana Trout Unlimited’s staff wrote this excellent piece about the public money boondoggles and challenges posed by recent mining projects in Montana, and how they provide a cautionary tale as we move forward with the Black Butte Project.

Joe Sowerby, of Smith River Flyfishing Expeditions, has been guiding on the Smith since 1995, and is currently one of the largest permit holders on the river. Sowerby is a skeptic, too, albeit a good-natured one. “This is not about a distrust of Jerry Zeig, or of Tintina,” Sowerby said. “Jerry grew up there, and people definitely trust him. The town of White Sulphur Springs is very much behind this mine, and there is a lot of infrastructure planned for the town, a lot of carrots dangling. The mining company has a lot of data that basically says, ‘don’t worry, guys, this is not like all those other mines.’ But I think it is telling that the mining industry wrote that memo, lashing out so quickly. Are we not supposed to be skeptical of a project like this? Are we not supposed to ask questions?

“What it boils down to is that this is not any project on any trout river. This is the Smith River, and it’s like the crown jewel for most people. From a fishing perspective, there are people all over the world who consider it among the greatest rivers, anywhere. Sheep Creek is the Smith’s lifeblood. There’s no carrot here. The river has nothing to gain, and everything to lose.”