MILLTOWN - Years ago, Father Mike Poole was a priest in the town whose mines sent a century of pollutants and metals to the Milltown Dam.

Today, Poole performs his ministerial duties in Bonner, not Butte. And so Sunday, after church let out, the priest stretched his legs out in the summer sun, right at the confluence of two rivers, where the dam is no more.

"The day is going to come," said Poole, "when we'll have a big population and we won't have enough recreation areas."

And that's why he came here on this day, still dressed in priestly black - to give support and thanks to Friends of

Two Rivers, the nonprofit that has advocated for the restoration of the area since 2002.

This was the sixth year of the group's "Community at the Confluence" celebration.

Just up the banks of the Blackfoot River where the dam used to sit, not far from where the Blackfoot and Clark Fork merge, folks who love these rivers and the Bonner and Milltown communities ate bison burgers over the strains of bluegrass, celebrating the return of this place to its natural state.

And they can hardly wait until the day it's opened to the public again as a state park, which is only a couple of years away.

"It will change the face of the entire area," said Jamie Jonkel, a bear management specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "In 30 years, this will be the place to live."

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The FWP was among a half-dozen groups that set up information and activities tables at the event. Others included the Bonner Milltown History Center, the Great Bear Foundation and Trout Unlimited.

Friends of Two Rivers formed a year before then-Gov. Judy Martz announced that Montana fully backed removing the dam, which the Environmental Protection Agency made official in 2003.

Since then, Friends of Two Rivers has made it its mission, among other things, to reconcile both sides of the bitter debate.

Hence, "Community at the Confluence."

"We were seeking a way that all could gather regardless of whether they had disagreements about the dam," said Judy Matson, communications director for the group. "This is a way we can celebrate something we all love."

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Maria Ibarbia first heard of the group last year when she attended one of its "Hooked on Art" events. Since then, she has dedicated herself to its mission and now serves as one of its vice presidents.

"They are absolutely one of the best nonprofits I've ever worked with, and I've worked with a lot," said Ibarbia. "Virtually all of them have been involved in community efforts all their lives, and all have an appreciation for the environment."

Poole appreciates it so much that he describes it as spiritual. And it

also turns out that he is not just a priest, but an "avid whitewater rafter."

That's why he asked the church for reassignment after years of attending to the faithful in Conrad.

"I just asked to be reassigned somewhere where the rivers are closer," Poole said.

The church obliged. And gave him not one, but two rivers.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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