A float trip down a beloved river explores what might be at stake if a proposal for a copper mine by its watershed becomes reality.
by Christopher Solomon
New York Times news story
See full news story and photos here.
In a state lousy with world-class waters — the Yellowstone and the Gallatin, the Madison and the Ruby, the “Mighty Mo” and Norman Maclean’s Big Blackfoot River — the Smith River may be the river that Montanans love most.
There is a good chance you have never heard of the Smith. The river lies far from Yellowstone’s Technicolor excesses, in north-central Montana, where the tourist maps don’t point. It gathers itself in the Castle Mountains and flows north for 120 miles between the Big and Little Belt mountains, accumulating miles and grandeur as it cuts through limestone canyons and flows over brown trout and past black bears rooting in high meadows. A few miles south of Great Falls it merges with the Missouri River.
The Smith is not the easiest river to float, which is one of its attractions. Between the boat launch at Camp Baker and the take-out at Eden Bridge, 59 river-miles downstream, there is no public entry or exit. You must surrender your outside life for the four or five days it takes to float down the Smith and give in to the river’s moods and its rhythms.
Yet the river is so beloved that each winter for more than two decades the state of Montana has held a lottery to decide which boaters — accompanied by beer, steaks, fly rods, more beer and good friends — will be lucky enough to float this coveted stretch of river that is Smith River State Park. The question “Did you get your application in?” marks the hope for spring in Montana the way Groundhog Day does in Punxsutawney. This year a record 8,096 people, most of them Montanans, applied for just 1,175 permits. The Smith is the only river in the state that has such limits placed upon it, because of its popularity and the limited floating season before its summer flow drops to a trickle.
There is trouble on the Smith, however. A mining company has proposed a copper mine high in the Smith’s watershed, not far from its major tributary. The mine’s backers say the project would be a good neighbor, offering tax revenue and jobs. Opponents point to the state’s devastating legacy of hard rock mining — a legacy that includes dark touchstones like areas around the mining town of Butte and the downstream Clark Fork River, both now Superfund sites.
They ask why Montanans should gamble with something so precious as the Smith.
It is a question that is being asked in different ways around the nation. Even as many waterways have seen improved water quality in the last few decades, more than half are still considered impaired, according to the 2013 National Rivers and Streams Assessment. An ongoing challenge is degraded water quality from sources that include leaky septic systems and agricultural runoff, according to Ellen Gilinsky, senior adviser in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water.
And there are other threats. The Grand Canyon’s Colorado River faces the prospect of a uranium mine and other development. A dam is proposed for the Gila River, New Mexico’s last undammed river. In Alaska, a company wants to remove a portion of the salmon-rich Chuitna River and replace it with the state’s largest strip mine for coal, then rebuild the river habitat when mining is completed.
As for the Smith, everyone agrees that it should not be harmed by the proposed copper mine. The question that no one can answer for certain is, Would it?
In late spring I headed to Montana in an attempt to understand why backers of the mine believe that this time mining’s legacy will be different. I wanted to meet opponents, too. Most of all I wanted to see the Smith for five days from the bow of a river raft. I wanted to crane my neck at its limestone walls and fool its sullen brown trout with a fly rod. I wanted to to understand why this river arouses such passion.
But first, I needed to see a future hole in the ground.
White Sulphur Springs, population 970, is a ranching town unburdened by stoplights at the foot of the Castle Mountains, 27 miles south of where boaters put in their rafts. The town has been in decline ever since the timber mill, a main source of jobs, was shuttered in the 1980s, residents say. Main Street is gaptoothed with empty storefronts.
Jerry Zieg, vice president for exploration at Tintina Resources, a Vancouver, British Columbia, company, wants to turn around his hometown’s fortunes. Tintina has proposed an underground mine to tap the nearby Johnny Lee Deposit, which is thought to contain more than $2 billion worth of copper. Tintina hopes to apply for a permit this fall. After state review the mine could open in early 2020. Once operating, the mine would employ about 200 people and perhaps spur other development.
On a warm morning in May, I met up with Mr. Zieg, a 60-year-old geologist who grew up on a ranch on the banks of the Smith. We drove outside of town, to the rolling green ranching country where the mine would appear. When the rock that holds copper is exposed to air and water, it often sets off a nasty chain reaction known as acid mine drainage leakage, which can kill waterways’ insect and fish life.
Mr. Zieg said the mine would use the latest techniques to prevent this drainage, including taking about half of the crushed waste rock created by the mining process, mixing it into a cement-like paste and returning it to the tunnels, rendering it inert. The rest would be contained in a way yet to be determined, perhaps a tailings pond. Mr. Zieg also noted that the ore Tintina wants to remove is surrounded by limestone and dolomite that can help buffer any acid that’s created.
We drove on, past Sheep Creek, a major tributary of the Smith. Mr. Zieg scoffed at concerns that the mine, which would sit about one mile away, would reduce the creek’s flow, or taint its water.
“We can’t screw up the water; we’d be shut down,” he said, adding that he has no interest in soiling his home. We stopped the truck on a hilltop, and he pointed toward the river, hidden behind reclining hills. “In my mind this is going to be one of the more environmentally friendly mines in the world,” he said. “The river should not even be an issue.”
The next morning the boat launch at Camp Baker was an Everest Base Camp chaos of preparation as boaters strapped dry bags and burly Yeti coolers to the frames of chubby river rafts and shoved off.
“We’re taking our friend on one last trip down the Smith,” one man told me. I didn’t know what he meant. Then he thumbed toward the container of ashes being lashed to the bow of a raft. “He loved the Smith River,” Scott Seacat said of his friend, whose remains they were: Bruce Simon, a former Republican Montana state legislator. Mr. Simon’s deathbed wish, Mr. Seacat said, was a final ride down the Smith. Once you get on the river, he said, “You’ll understand.”
I did want to understand. So I had signed on to row downstream with a group of clients led by Joe Sowerby. Mr. Sowerby is the owner of Montana Flyfishing Connection, which specializes in higher-end fly-fishing float trips on several of Montana’s marquee rivers. He has broad shoulders, straw-colored hair and a large white cowboy hat to deflect the river’s bright glare. I had sought out Mr. Sowerby not only because he is one of the largest of eight outfitters permitted to take clients down the Smith, but also because I’d heard he has thoughtful concerns about the mine proposal.
Smith River State Park is a curiosity, a state park that contains few state lands. While the entire corridor from Camp Baker to Eden Bridge is considered a park, its shores are a patchwork of private ranches and national forest, with a few state lands sprinkled among them. Twenty-eight campgrounds dot the shores of the river, which carries rafters through a mini-tour of Montana’s geography, from rolling ranchland to deep canyons to alpine meadows to prairie.
Each day a maximum of just nine groups of up to 15 people are permitted to put in on the river. When floaters apply in winter for the lottery, they choose their preferred dates and then pray to Lady Luck. Mid-June to early July is the peak time to float. Spring runoff has abated, Montana’s fickle weather (usually) tempers and the fish — mainly brown trout and rainbows — are ravenous to feed on the healthy insect hatches of stoneflies, drakes and other aquatic bugs.
Doubling the demand for the Smith is its short season: In a normal year the river is generally floatable from April only until the third week of July, when ranchers suck enough water from the river to irrigate alfalfa fields that it becomes too shallow to float.
We pushed off in Mr. Sowerby’s drift boat where Sheep Creek added its clear, cold voice to the tea-colored Smith. Around us, high ranching country was stubbled with pines that pointed to a blue sky. Bank swallows were eating the last clumsy salmonflies over the river. Twenty minutes after pushing away from the bank, the chaos of activity was gone. We drifted completely alone.
As he languidly rowed, Mr. Sowerby told his story: A Maine boy, he began to visit Montana with his father to hunt when he was young. He got his first job on the Smith at age 19 rowing a leaky cargo boat for a crusty old outfitter. “It was a formative moment, to be exposed to that kind of river trip at that age,” he said. He has worked on the river every year since. Mr. Sowerby, 42, guessed he has been down the river 110 times. He bought out another outfitter in 2001 and started his own company. “It’s still my favorite river in the state,” he said.
I pulled out my fly rod. The Smith is rated a “red ribbon” river by the state for its high-value mix of quality recreation, animal habitat and trout fishing. The only downside for a fisherman? The catching can be so good, an angler can forget to lift his head, and miss long stretches of scrapbook views.
“Throw it in that cave,” commanded Mr. Sowerby as we drifted past the first of many miles of undercut walls of stone. I am a writer who fishes, not a fisherman who writes, as the great angling writer Roderick Haig-Brown once wrote of himself. But Mr. Sowerby’s knowledge, and his patience, made up the deficit. As ordered, I somehow backhanded a woolly bugger streamer into one of those dim garages where brown trout, solitary and voracious, love to lurk.
Brought to the net, the fish was gorgeous — 18 inches long, with a brownie’s polka-dots and a brush of blue-black on its cheeks like an oil stain. It was a good start.
As we drifted northward the landscape slowly knitted itself together. Low yellow limestone cliffs began to appear, half-dressed in dark pines and spattered with red lichen. Inevitably talk drifted to the mine. “It’s the questions that they can’t answer that bother me,” Mr. Sowerby said. What happens if caring locals like Jerry Zieg get pushed out of the company? he wondered. (An Australian mining company, Sandfire Resources, now owns 36 percent of the project.) What if they eventually want to expand the mine further? What if an accident happens? What if they can’t control the acid drainage?
Skepticism is not unwarranted. No state knows both mining’s allure and its aftermath like Montana, a state so intertwined with mining that Helena, the state capital, rose atop a metals strike, and Montana’s license plates still say “The Treasure State.”
But mining has left a horrific legacy. Today the state has thousands of abandoned hard rock sites. The names of many former mines and locations have become an ominous shorthand for all that can go wrong. Butte. Beal Mountain. Mike Horse. The disastrous Zortman-Landusky gold mine, whose pollution was so severe that it spurred Montana voters to approve the nation’s first statewide ban on cyanide mining.
One divide away from the Smith River lies Belt Creek, a century ago such a prolific fishery that a train brought weekend fishermen from Great Falls, where they filled their creels before heading home. Years of mining poisoned the creek and its tributaries; today the area has two large Superfund zones that include more than 100 former mines, about a dozen of which are currently leaking acid. While some fish have returned, completely cleaning up the areas will cost tens of millions of dollars, according to an E.P.A. official.
Mr. Sowerby dropped anchor and dipped his cowboy hat in the river to cool off. He is thoughtful, and careful with his words. “Take a look downstream,” he said by way of argument. The canyon of the Smith was starting to emerge, its pale walls reaching higher from cold water. Thirsty pines edged closer to the cliffs to peer down on the river. “This is the crown jewel of Montana’s rivers,” he said. “This is the river people are most protective of.”
Mr. Sowerby said he is fairly conservative on many issues. “I’m not 100 percent against the mine,” he said. “I’m 100 percent against degrading the Smith.”
We drifted in silence for a bit. It seemed a shame to be having such sober discussions on a day like this, with the sun warm on the back of the neck and the Rocky Mountains manufacturing puffy white clouds and sending them steaming toward the Dakotas. I picked up my fly rod again.
That evening, we pulled to shore where the rest of Mr. Sowerby’s crew already had set up camp. Self-denial is not one of the hardships of a river trip, and that night we dined on halibut with mango chutney and asparagus, washed down with a nice white wine. We were ushered to our tents at last only by the urgings of a spring rainstorm.
We shoved off the next morning to the empty-belly rumble of distant thunder and dodged sprinkles all day long; encounters with Montana’s ever-changing meteorology — from hot sun to snow — are de rigueur for a trip on the Smith in spring.
With each mile the river cut deeper through a limestone canyon that is the record of an ancient sea bottom. We rowed back through time itself, until the eons stacked 1,000 feet above us and fossils of clams sat within reach on the shore. Each turn of the river cut a new amphitheater of stone. From beneath another limestone undercut I teased a 19-inch brownie from its lair and was happy the rest of the day.
Late in the afternoon we pulled to shore near “canyon depth,” the deepest part of the Smith in its limestone bed. There we met Willie Rahr, whose family owns 3,000 acres along the river. We headed with Mr. Rahr to the canyon’s rim and took in one of the best views in Montana, across the snaking bends of the Smith.
“Mining companies have been saying, ‘We have the best, newest technology’ for generations. But something always happens,” Mr. Rahr replied, when I asked him why his family was fighting the mine.
His suspicion is well-founded. In a majority of instances operators have underestimated the effects their mines have on water quality, according to a 2006 study co-authored by Jim Kuipers, a longtime Montana mining engineer and consultant. Of nine mines that Mr. Kuipers looked at that developed acid mine drainage, eight either underestimated, or ignored, potential for the pollution to occur.
“This is my favorite day of the trip,” Mr. Sowerby said on the morning of Day 4. He brings a lot of people down this river who come from high-stress jobs, he said. They take days to unclench, unplug. But by Day 4 “people fall into a sense of relaxation,” he said. They surrender to ‘‘river time.’’
After River Depth, the high walls of the canyon gradually stepped back from the water — still present but a bit more aloof, replaced by grassy meadows that rolled down to the water’s edge. Sometimes, elk forage here.
The Smith is a blend of many scenes, just like Montana: One moment a rafter feels as if he’s in a depthless wilderness where he might vanish forever. Round another bend and the scene feels gentle, almost pastoral. A few minutes later, something like the Heaven on Earth Ranch appears, with its nine-hole pitch-n-putt golf course.
We drifted on. It was not a day of places but of colors: pale yellow limestone walls; dark pines pointing to blue skies where white clouds steadily coagulated into black moods before going their separate ways; pink woods’ rose and primrose on the banks. Caves and cliff walls along the Smith are home to dozens of Native American pictographs — red hand prints, figures with ears like bunnies — and we pulled to shore and scrambled in search of them. A thunderstorm that had doubled the river’s volume and turned its tea-colored waters a Frappuccino brown finally began to recede, and when we stepped to shore with fly rods in hand to fish once more, the smell of wild mint rose underfoot: river aromatherapy.
The landscape opened up still more on our final day. Cliffs gave way to rolling hills dotted with new lambs. Hills in turn gave way to cottonwood bottomlands under the bowl of the big sky. Leaving the canyon behind, it felt as if we’d been released from a firm grip, yet it also felt like a days’-long reverie had ended. When the boat ramp appeared, I heard myself say no. But our turn was over.
I understood why Mr. Sowerby cared so much about the Smith, and Mr. Zieg, too. Nothing must happen to this place.
Christopher Solomon is a contributing editor at Outside magazine.