29 January 2008

A New Year on the Upper Clark Fork

A version of this commentary aired on KUFM, Montana Public Radio (http://www.mtpr.net/commentaries.html), as part of a regular series I do for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee (www.cfrtac.org).

It's nice to see a real winter settle across the Butte landscape. Snow-pack is looking good, which portends well for fish and river flows this summer. And the thirty below zero temperatures might even slow down the pine beetles that have been chewing their way through the forests of lodgepole pines. This cold weather slows me down. On the cross country ski trails, I’ve been waxing with Swix Polar and even then it’s a little like skiing on beach sand.

Here’s news to warm our hearts: Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program recently announced that 20 million dollars would be available in this year’s grant cycle for restoration and replacement projects in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. This is a huge increase—more than doubling the amount available in prior years.

The increase seems to stem from the expectation that Montana and Arco-British Petroleum will arrive at a settlement for the state’s outstanding natural resource damage claims on the Clark Fork River, Anaconda Uplands, and Butte Area One. Montana received a total of 230 million dollars in 1999 as a partial settlement for its claims. Of that amount, about 130 million dollars was solely for injuries to our natural resources.

The total value assigned to the outstanding claims is about 175 million dollars. Up until now, no restoration funds were available for these areas. For example, projects on the Clark Fork River were off limits.

With 20 million dollars available and the prospect of the entire basin open to projects, there are some attractive possibilities. Property acquisitions for big horn sheep winter range, river access sites, conservation easements along the river, and combining remedy & restoration in heavily polluted areas: these are just a few of the ways that this funding could be used.

In order to consider increased funding and opportunities, CFRTAC recently hosted a meeting of folks representing landowners, conservation groups, sportsmen’s groups, and local communities. One overarching concern emerged from the discussion: there is no comprehensive restoration plan for the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.

A watershed is a closely integrated system where the parts interact in intimate and sometimes unexpected ways. Without a holistic or “big picture” understanding, it is easy to fall into bad management practices. As a simple example, consider the property owners that rip-rap the river bank. This further destabilizes the river channel, creates problems for downstream owners, and harms habitat health.

We saw some problems early on when money became available for restoration projects in the Silver Bow Creek watershed around Butte. The lack of a comprehensive plan encouraged piecemeal projects that, in some cases, did not contribute to overall watershed health. Because of concerns raised by the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee and other conservation groups, the Natural Resource Damage Program developed a comprehensive watershed restoration plan. This plan identified and prioritized restoration needs, and now guides decisions about which projects get funded.

The Silver Bow Creek Watershed Restoration Plan was developed with broad public involvement. Participants included local citizen-activists, community leaders, conservation groups, and agency scientists. Diverse grassroots and scientist participation helped educate Natural Resource Damage Program staff about the many environmental subtleties, restoration needs, and holistic connections within the watershed. Information needed for a comprehensive plan was already out there—but it was not available in ways that could shape good decisions about how and where to spend the public’s money.

For example, we learned that several tributaries of Silver Bow Creek hold populations of native Westslope cutthroat trout. Restoring these streams, protecting native fish from hybridization by introduced species, and enhancing connectivity between the tributaries and Silver Bow Creek emerged as major priorities. Throughout the comprehensive plan, the emphasis is on restoration as a self-sustaining process that will not require constant maintenance or additional funding, and in ways that contribute to future environmental health and community well-being.

It is critical that the Natural Resource Damage Program invest in a similar comprehensive plan for the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. While 200 million dollars sounds like a lot of money, natural resource restoration and replacement projects can be very expensive. It would be easy to blow the whole wad and have little to show for it. Residents of the Clark Fork River watershed – including future generations – deserve better.

For more news about the Clark Fork River and related Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink www.cfrtac.org.

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