The upper Clark Fork River continues to grow healthier after a century of mining abuse, but it's always been hard to get to.

That's about to change thanks to the efforts of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which just helped bring a fishing pond and 6,000 feet of river frontage into public hands.

"We don't have to wait for development to actually enjoy it," said Trout Unlimited member Steve Luebeck of Butte, who helped bring the deal to pass. "It's a sizable pond - 30 acres. That's about the size of 30 football fields. We're not going to have people on jet skis or motorboats out there. But kick-boats, and rowboats and canoes, there's certainly room for that."

The 275-acre Paracini Ponds property was part of a larger ranch next to the Interstate 90 Racetrack exit 11 miles south of Deer Lodge. The pond was originally a gravel quarry highway builders excavated to build the exit ramps in the 1970s. Over the years, it filled with groundwater.

Someone - no one's certain who - stocked the pond with trout for a few years. It now contains some lunker brown trout, along with less-desirable perch and suckers. The nearby river also has a blossoming trout fishery.

"There aren't any fishing access sites between Warm Springs and Deer Lodge," said Tom Mostad, project manager for the state Natural Resource Resource Program. "This would be the only one."

Mostad worked with the Trout Unlimited members to win grant funding for the land purchase, and to plan for its public use. That will initially include some removal or capping of toxic-metal slickens along the river, along with planting new vegetation in the affected areas.

"The problem is in the floodplain and river," Mostad said. "The pond we tested and it is non-contaminated."

TU members contributed about $25,000 to get the project off the ground. The Upper Clark Fork River Basin remediation fund provided a $1.2 million grant to buy the property, which is now in the possession of the state Department of Environmental Quality. At some point next year, it will probably be turned over to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for development as a fishing pond, picnic site and river fishing access.

"The topography is so flat, they may put in a handicapped deck for people with disabilities," Luebeck said. "It would be a really nice location for disabled fishing opportunities."

The pond also attracts large flocks of ducks, snow geese and Canada geese during spring and fall migration periods. White-tail deer and antelope are regular visitors on the Paracini property and an adjacent 200 acres of Department of Natural Resources and Conservation land.

The state is putting final touches on a 20-year plan for restoring the upper Clark Fork and related areas damaged by the region's mining legacy. Over much of the 20th century, smelters in Butte and Anaconda piled millions of tons of mine waste around the headwaters of the Clark Fork. Occasional floods washed some of that waste downstream, where it accumulated in sandbars and other bank features.

The upper 43 miles of the Clark Fork is a meandering stream about 20 feet wide and a few feet deep. It passes through private farms and ranches for nearly all its length, although boaters can use several bridge crossings to get to the water.

The Paracini Ponds property should begin a public planning process next spring after FWP officials review its possibilities. But the public can visit it now - although it's frozen over for most of the winter - by heading east off the Racetrack I-90 exit. Roads 191 and 003 run on the west and east sides of the property, respectively.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney


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