Last month hundreds of us stood on the banks of the Clark Fork River which courses through 120 miles of the largest superfund site in the nation. We were there to watch the river run free for the first time in 100 years. In doing so we were recognizing the advent of a new economy here in Montana and throughout the states of the Rocky Mountains – the Restoration Economy.
Teddy Roosevelt was president when construction began on the copper baron William Clark’s hydroelectric dam in 1905. The Russian Revolution was underway, the ground under San Francisco was tensing for the great earthquake only months away, the Ziegfeld follies were lighting up on the Great White Way on Broadway and movies were not yet in sound.
The $400,000 dam was completed in 1908 and on Jan. 9, shortly after 3 p.m., a switch was thrown and electricity was generated from Clark’s Dam. The former U.S. senator needed electricity for his Bonner and Milltown sawmills and to power the progress in nearby Missoula. The sawmills were feeding timber to Clark’s mines in Butte, the “World’s Richest Hill.”
The enormous productivity of those copper mines combined with the virtually non-existent concerns for the environment led to both the second Industrial Revolution and its ruinous underbelly of destruction, death and toxic poisoning. A century of mining in Butte flushed the uncaptured copper, lead, mercury, zinc, arsenic and cadmium down Silverbow Creek and into the Clark Fork River where 2.6 million cubic yards of the sediment was captured behind.
Clark’s Dam, now the Milltown Dam and Reservoir, into which also pour the nearby waters of the renowned Big Blackfoot of “A River Runs Through It” fame.
We Montanans have come to understand that the seven square miles of 10-foot high poisonous sediment behind the dam represents not only yesterday’s mistakes, but also today’s pay dirt. This flip side of the Industrial Revolution means new opportunities in employment, salaries, benefits and profits. Last weekend, standing on the banks of the river watching the waters bypass the old nearly dismantled dam, one sensed the enormous economic and environmental potential of hundreds of similar, if smaller, projects throughout Montana.
There are 6,000 abandoned mines in Montana and 160,000 of them across the nation. Most of them are here in our Rocky Mountains, with tens of thousands of miles of old and now unused timber roads, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and 186,000 miles of roads that should be either repaired or removed. The roadwork alone translates into 3,000 jobs each year for 20 years.
That’s pay dirt. So are the stream beds and banks in need of restitching, the clearcuts that must be reseeded, the selective timber cuts necessary to slow or prevent each summer’s fire storms, our urban brown fields and high plains grasslands that need restoration.
With this new Restoration Economy beckoning, we must proceed with purpose and wisdom. All western states need a coordinated plan just as we have begun to assemble here in Montana. Our last legislature, with encouragement and support from Gov. Schweitzer, appropriated $34 million in new restoration funding and, most critical, created an office of Restoration Coordination within the state’s Department of Natural Resources. That office is now engaged in the essential first steps of developing policy and purpose in the creation of a Restoration Economy.
With a little foresight and a lot of effort, including funding, Montana and the West can launch this new economy which will return significant rewards in an improved environment and a reinvigorated economy through new developments, trails, parks, and rivers running free and clean once again.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and Northern Director of Western Progress.
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