What does the future hold for this beloved waterway, built on a history of local collaboration and respect?
The crew is spread from here to hell and gone. Everybody is happy.
Dana, Allen, Kay, BJ, Margaret, and Cinclair are lounging in camp chairs they purposely planted in the rushing water. They are ankle-deep in the Smith River, one of Montana’s jewels and one of the West’s most famous floats. The temperatures are somewhere north of 90, and the parents and grandparents are cooling off after a round of chores that come with a five-day river trip.
Grace is trying to get Chandler and Jillian to don their lifejackets and float through a riffle. The excited squeals of a ten-year-old and a six-year-old bounce off the canyon’s walls. Sophie and Claire are hiking to a rock outcropping across the river. Their progress is monitored closely by the riverside cocktail drinkers, who worry about snakes and climbing injuries. Jake is snorkeling, trying to find the river’s famed rainbows and browns. Kendall is awaiting Jake’s report as he sorts his fly box.
Cellphones are useless and nobody is thinking about Trump or Clinton, police shootings or terrorism. Our world has been reduced to the river’s quiet rhythm, buzzing insects, and the occasional roar of upstream winds. Our cocoon is enclosed by the canyon’s alabaster cliffs, the green hues of the forest, and painfully blue sky.
The Smith’s Ancestry: Cooperation
Each year, more than 5,000 people experience this public treasure slicing between the Big Belt and Little Belt Mountains in central Montana. With a permit, you can fish 59 miles of the Smith, productive trout habitat stretching through the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, even though 80 percent of the river’s banks are privately owned.
Use of this beloved river is the result of cooperation, ingenuity, and patience. The Smith is an economic driver today because of the foresight of Montanans, who started lobbying for its public use nearly 75 years ago.
“The cooperation that has led to the Smith’s success as an economic driver has also created a group of people who are invested in the river,” said Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “We are all tied by the fact that we love the Smith and we don’t want it to change.”
People, including state officials, first floated the idea of a state park in 1953, but it failed due to fears that a park designation would draw crowds who would trample the special area and impinge on private landowner rights. Undaunted, a small group of Montana officials kept working to find a way to keep the river bottoms from being lost forever to private interests.
In 1970, public use of the river corridor got a boost from the Governor’s Council on Natural Resources and Development, which recommended that the Smith River not be developed as a state park but as the Smith State Recreational Waterway. This would permit the exchange of state lands for private lands and help set aside funding for acquiring easements.
Through a series of meetings between Smith River landowners and FWP starting that same year, a collaborative was formed to manage the river’s ever-growing use. In 1989, the Montana Legislature passed the Smith River Management Act, and in 1993, FWP instituted a permit system with daily launch limits. The state also negotiated leases of private property to create camping areas.
Regulations have evolved over the years and the river’s management is now a sterling example of how disparate interests—the Forest Service, counties, private landowners, business owners, state officials, and the recreating public—can partner to use public water that is largely surrounded by private property.
A New Challenge
But the Smith River and its legion of fans face a new challenge: The Black Butte Copper Project. Tintina Resources, a Canadian subsidiary of an Australian mining corporation, is proposing a $218-million copper mine around Sheep Creek, which provides roughly half of the Smith’s headwaters. Mine-backers tout the company’s strong environmental record, plus the possibility of job creation and tax revenue. They say $2 billion in high-grade ore is ready to be mined by more than 200 people.
Conservation groups, such as Trout Unlimited, are concerned, arguing that Montana’s long list of hard-rock mining issues—the state has 17 Superfund sites—show an industry unfit to make claims that they will be good neighbors. The “good neighbor” argument isn’t gaining traction with locals either, according to rancher Willie Rahr. “Mining companies have been saying, ‘We have the best, newest technology’ for generations,” Rahr told the New York Times in 2015, “but something always happens.”
Early efforts to slow Tintina’s progress have been mixed. The mining company is currently awaiting state approval, and if all goes according to plan, the mine could be functional as early as 2020. Montana TU’s Farling said that timeline is unrealistic, but he is keeping a close eye on the slow-moving permit process. All the while, he continues to make the argument that the Smith is a sustainable economic driver—fishing alone generates $8 million annually—while the mine is unsustainable, shortsighted, and risky.
Back on the river, our camp chairs have been fished from the water and now ring the fire pit. Stars start to pop from the darkening skies. Fly rods and snorkeling gear have been stowed and three generations of two families discuss the river’s future. As carefree as we are out here, there’s room for concern.
Naturally, our crew decides the mine is too risky, but we have faith that the people who enjoy the famed river will unite, like they have in the past, to make a case for protecting this river and its headwaters. We don’t need to mine for riches—the real treasure was realized 75 years ago.