Milltown renaissance: Who would have believed it?

 

Below Montana’s famous big sky, the environmental wounds of history fester. Along the banks of the Clark Fork River, for example, from Warm Springs to Milltown, Montana, one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States stretches across 120 miles of communities and streambeds.

Large swaths of the Clark Fork River have slowly been transformed into moonscapes as thousands of tons of toxic soil have been excavated to remove mine waste. The pollution, which was created by unregulated mining practices, began decades ago in the late 1800s, and continued well into the 20th century. The result: Entire streambeds have had to be amputated and rebuilt in an effort to restore what was once a thriving, diverse ecosystem.

In 2008, the Milltown Dam, located at the tail end of the Superfund site, was removed, making the area one of the first completed sections of the cleanup. Part of the site’s redevelopment plan involved turning more than 500 acres of pine forest and floodplains into a state park. Michael Kustudia, manager of the new Milltown State Park, says that for the last 10 years, the “three Rs” have guided his work: reclamation, restoration and redevelopment. Kustudia, whose roots in the area go back to the 1800s, says his job has been a labor of love, and it’s his hope that the park will become a common ground for people.

It was 107 years ago that Milltown Dam began flooding the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot River, while also collecting a bed of toxic sludge from upstream mining operations. In the early 1980s, arsenic was discovered in local wells, but it took almost three decades for the cleanup to begin. Relocating this sediment waste from the dam site to the town of Opportunity sparked one of the more contentious and public feuds that have plagued the cleanup, and, at times, it overshadowed the progress of reclamation.

“You hear this narrative that this affluent community is dumping its waste on this poor working-class community, and that’s not just true in my mind,” Kustudia says. “These towns have a lot more in common than not, and they’ve all suffered from a post-industrial hangover.”

Even after the dam was successfully removed, along with much of the toxic sludge behind it, industrial gravesites continue to plague the area and prolong the ongoing development of the state park. International Paper, the company that took over operations of the old lumber mill adjacent to the dam site, owns one of the park’s proposed main access points.

“It would be a perfect way to get into the park,” Kustudia says. “International Paper has offered us a donation of that land, but it has a landfill from the former mill that’s full of old wood waste and boiler waste, and we don’t know exactly what else.” Kustudia sums up: “It’s really difficult building a park in an industrialized zone.” Despite the setbacks, he hopes to break ground on developing the main part of the park this year. 

An overlook of the dam site has been open since 2014, and it affords visitors a sweeping view of Milltown and the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers. For outsiders, however, the view can seem dismal. Abandoned logging roads are gouged deep into the surrounding hillsides, offering a sad reminder of an industry that’s come and gone. Clear-cut trunk stubs from 200-year-old trees rot in the floodplain below. And the closed lumberyard is an eyesore in a town whose once-thriving businesses are now shuttered and decaying. 

But for countless people like Michael Kustudia, who had a role in the transformation of the reservoir and dam site, the view is nothing short of a miracle. Willow saplings, he points out, have now taken root along the once-toxic riverbanks. For an unincorporated community with less than 2,000 residents, the chance for revival doesn’t come often.

“Milltown is going through a renaissance,” Kustudia says. “It had such an identity of a lumber town, of an industry town. It’s kind of being reborn now.”

When the park is complete, it will offer trails and access for hikers, floaters, mountain bikers and anglers. Meanwhile, on May 1, the floodplain, which was once buried by the reservoir stretching behind the Milltown Dam, was opened to the public for the first time in more than a century. Interpretive displays along the trail to the overlook now guide visitors through the site’s complex history and redevelopment. On this section of the Clark Fork, visitors can see for themselves that life is finally returning. Today, young cottonwoods bloom under a warm spring sun, and field crickets chirp as lark buntings nest on a bluff overlooking two rivers that flow into one.

Erica Langston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a writer in Missoula, Montana.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Milltown Dam was removed in 2012, but it was in fact 2008. HCN regrets this error. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -