Butte Pacific


From north to south, the pastures of the Dry Cottonwood Creek Allotment are as follows: Orofino, North Fork, Basin, Sand Hollow, Upper Hilltop, Lower Hilltop, and Butte Pacific. The last of these—Butte Pacific—is foremost in my mind today.

All the other pastures are named for natural features: Orofino for a creek and a mountain; North Fork for one of two little brooks that join to form Dry Cottonwood Creek; Basin for a massive bowl of grass that stretches nearly to the continental divide; Sand Hollow for a creek that disappears into the ground (although the cartographers missed the mark on this one, since the creek itself doesn’t flow through the pasture); the Hilltops, both Upper and Lower, for a massive ridge that curves like the back of a sleeping dog.

Butte Pacific is different. It’s named for a few caved-in shafts and a shattered concrete foundation that used to be a copper mine of middling worth. The Butte Pacific pasture is oddly shaped and speckled with a shotgun pattern of private in-holdings. Butte Pacific hangs off the south end of the allotment like an afterthought. The other guys who run cattle up here tell me that it’s always the first pasture to dry out, and that the grass never seems to last long. They warn me about some of the people that live back in the mountains, and tell stories about being run off at gunpoint, or being threatened by men with crazy eyes and blunt instruments in their hands. “If the cattle get up that way,” A friend of mine said, “I’d just as soon leave ‘em.”

Butte Pacific sits on a boundary between worlds. Look north and you see an endless line of lumpish mountains—an ecosystem as healthy as most of the others around here. The land has problems, to be sure, but by and large they are the familiar epidemics of western Montana: Cows beat hell out of the creeks; Ill conceived roads spill sediment downhill; People tear around on ATV’s; Pine beetles color the hillsides a hopeless shade of red.

These things are bad. Some of them are even catastrophic. But in spite of them the land endures. Westslope Cutthroat trout swim in the North Fork. Elk bugle through the groves of dying lodgepole pine. North of Butte Pacific it is still possible to hope. The mountains are alive enough to suggest a brighter future.

Not so to the south. That way lays the wasteland. Climb up to the top of the principal ridge in Butte Pacific, look upstream along the Clark Fork River, and this is what you see:

The horizon is all mountains—sheer gray triangles that make up the Anaconda Range. This September they hold just a few last shreds of snow. The principal peak is Mount Haggin, and it juts into the sky like a bony shoulder. The mountains are the highest points in the panorama, but not by much. Let your eyes fall just a bit from the skyline, and you’ll see the Stack.

It is inadequate to say that the Stack is big. It doesn’t do justice to specify that it measures 585 feet from bottom to top, has walls that taper from six to two feet thick, and is a strong contender for the title of ‘tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world.’ The thing is gargantuan, built on a scale to match Montana’s famously big sky.

The Stack is what remains of the Anaconda Smelter, a facility that spent the better part of the last century cooking a massive profit out of low-grade ore from Butte. It looks jet-black from where I’m standing, regardless of the weather or the angle of the sun. It sits like a crow on the hill above Anaconda.

From my point of view the Stack looks ominous. I know it’s toxic as hell—soaked through with Arsenic and heavy metals—and that it rained a dilute, poisonous ash across this valley for more fifty years.

In old photos, the Stack is connected to a labyrinth of furnaces and smelters by a handful of massive flues. The buildings and their exhaust pipes are gone now, removed in the early stages of an environmental cleanup that continues today. Nowadays we’re left with one towering chimney, which has the presence of a war memorial, and vast tracts of polluted land.

The worst of these are the Opportunity Settling Ponds, which stretch downhill from the base of the smelter toward the Clark Fork River. The ponds are dry now, and from up in the Butte Pacific Pasture they look white as old bones. Nothing grows on them. Nothing moves across that benighted, manmade desert except a few haul trucks and the wind. I’ve been down there, and it’s bad dirt as far as the eye can see. 

Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at www.clarkfork.org.