On the upper Clark Fork River


Summer is in full swing on the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch—the birds are chirping, the mosquitoes are plentiful, the hay is cut, and the cattle are grazing. Since hiring on in June as the Clark Fork Coalition’s  Ranchlands Program Manager, I’ve had a chance to get a feel for the day-to-day operation of the ranch, and explore the role that this property can play in the cleanup and restoration of the upper Clark Fork River.

First, a bit of background: In 2005, with the help of two conservation partners, the C.F.C. purchased the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch. The property is located on the East side of Interstate-90, between the towns of Racetrack and Galen. It’s a 2,300-acre working cattle ranch, and we own around 140 Red Angus cow-calf pairs. Our deeded land includes more than three miles of the Clark Fork River, a large chunk of the floodplain, a tributary stream, and several upland pastures.

Out here it’s impossible to forget about the toxic legacy of mining and the impending Superfund cleanup of the river corridor for more than a few minutes. To the South, the relic smokestack of the Anaconda smelter pokes up toward the mountains like a massive, black exclamation point. From high spots on the property, you can see enormous, dusty flats sprawling outward from the smelter. Walk through the dense willows that grow along our stretch of the Clark Fork, and you’ll encounter barren clearings where the soils are so loaded with Arsenic and heavy metals that nothing grows.  Standing in the middle of one of these slickens, it’s clear that this landscape has been profoundly and thoroughly damaged, and that returning the river to pristine conditions will take a huge amount of work.

Fortunately, that work is about to begin, and, given our position at the upper end of the river, we’ll be one of the first properties in line for cleanup. In July, I got the chance to meet with Joel Chavez and Brian Bartkowiak of the Department of Environmental Quality to discuss the way remediation and restoration will happen on our property. We walked the river together, swatting bugs, crashing through willow thickets and finding an endless succession of slickens, eroded banks, and impacted soils.

The worst spots—the places where exposed mine tailings cover the surface of the ground—will be removed, trucked away and replaced with clean soil. In other, less contaminated zones, the soil will be treated in situ. On the D.C.C.R., this will mean tilling amendments like lime into the toxic dirt. Throughout the riparian corridor, the cleanup effort will include re-vegetation of disturbed and impacted soils, as well as a concerted effort to improve the health and stability of the riverbanks.

Although we’re making progress toward on-the-ground cleanup, and are doing everything in our power to keep the process moving forward throughout the Deer Lodge Valley, it’s clear that we’ve still got a while to wait before heavy equipment starts rolling across the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch. The latest timeline calls for soil sampling to occur on the ranch in the fall of 2009 or the spring of 2010, with the actual cleanup beginning no earlier than summer 2010.

This blog will chronicle the Superfund cleanup process, as well as my attempts to refine our agricultural practices on the ranch. It will focus a lens on what it means to serve as a steward to a badly beaten landscape. I hope you’ll read along.

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.