When Norman Maclean wrote “A River Runs Through It,” he immortalized the valley where three generations of my family have lived since my father bought our ranch in 1949. The North Fork of the Blackfoot weaves through our land and our spirits, the economic and emotional lifeblood of the region.
The Blackfoot and its tributaries boast native bull and westslope cutthroat trout, as well as legendary browns and rainbows. To the north, the Bob Marshall Wilderness provides sanctuary for the largest grizzly population in the Lower 48. Deer, elk and moose abound for enjoying and hunting.
Like the Blackfoot River, our family is Montanan through and through. My grandfather emigrated from Sweden and came west to mine, before an accident on the job took his life when my dad was 9. My father’s first job after the Depression was in an underground mine in Butte. Like me, almost any Montanan can trace back a generation or two to a miner.
But mining today is not what it was in my grandfather’s day, when it was mostly done on a small scale with anyone wielding a pan or a pick. Mining operations today are done on a massive scale, altering entire landscapes and leaving vast volumes of mine waste behind. Unfortunately, the laws that govern mining have not kept pace with the change in times or techniques. Montanans continue to pay a heavy price in terms of severe pollution to many of our rivers, streams and groundwater.
It’s hard to fathom that the Blackfoot was a poisoned river not long ago. When the Mike Horse Dam was breached during heavy rains in 1975, a toxic brew of aluminum, arsenic, zinc and other heavy metals roared downstream, killing fish and devastating 10 miles of the Blackfoot. The reservoir behind the dam, built on U.S. Forest Service land near the river’s headwaters, held the waste from area mines. ASARCO rebuilt the dam, but taxpayers have been stuck with its upkeep and worries over whether it will hold.
On the Clark Fork, a settlement gave the state about one-third of the estimated cost of the actual damages to clean up the nation’s largest Superfund complex, tainted by decades of acid drainage that has turned creeks orange and contaminated sediments, soils and groundwater.
Even though times have changed, the laws that govern mining on federal lands have not. Under the General Mining Law of 1872, intended to encourage the settlement and expansion of the West, miners received the right to prospect wherever they liked. They could buy public land for less than $5 an acre, and mining was deemed the highest priority over any other land use. The law offers multinational conglomerates the same bargain today. And it fails to provide adequate protections for water and wildlife. Without reform, the only ones to benefit from more mining in Montana will be the stockholders of the large companies that operate here.
Unlike the coal, oil and natural gas industries, hardrock mining companies don’t pay royalties on the estimated $1 billion in minerals they extract from the nation’s lands each year. Yet they often leave behind an environmental disaster costing taxpayers much more than that.
There is a solution. New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has introduced a bill in the Senate, S. 796, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, which will ensure that the industry is managed responsibly for the 21st century, not the 19th.
The legislation will require mining companies to pay a reclamation fee to fund clean up of abandoned mines and help to create good jobs in struggling rural communities. Taxpayers won’t face massive cleanup bills when companies enjoy large profits and walk away. And the legislation will allow the Secretary of the Interior to protect our public lands against projects deemed a threat to resources, the economic base, and the overall lifestyle that all Montanans hold dear.
For the first time in decades, an opportunity to pass meaningful reform is before us, a chance we must seize now.
When I watch my son fish the Blackfoot River wearing my grandfather’s fishing cap, I see water running through four generations. Too much is at stake not to act.
Jon Krutar is a rancher, veteran and former economics professor. He is co-founder of the Blackfoot Legacy and an appointed member of the state of Montana’s Upper Clark Fork River Basin Remediation and Restoration Advisory Council. Krutar lives on the family ranch upstream from Ovando.