NINEMILE - You've got to respect the gumption of the miners who bushwhacked all the way up St. Louis Creek to pan for gold a century ago.
Unfortunately, they had little respect for the damage they did to the headwaters of Ninemile Creek and the fishery that flows into the Clark Fork River. The old placer works, some 60 air-miles from Missoula in the northwestern pothandle of the county, are hard to find even in an aerial photo. But the on-and-off mining left scars that are finally getting repaired.
"I remember before the big dredge piles were up there," recalled Ralph Thisted, whose family has ranched there since the 1930s. "But there was nothing we could do about it. Sometimes it was just a sea of mud coming down the creek."
That mud came from bulldozers and draglines scraping the steep hillsides along St. Louis Creek, and from dredges that left 30-foot-high mounds of rubble in nearby Mattie V Creek. The first miners came sometime in the 1890s. They kept at it up through the 1980s, when the U.S. Forest Service started enforcing new mining regulations.
"This is one of the most heavily mined watersheds along the Clark Fork," said Trout Unlimited restoration coordinator Rob Roberts. "They basically turned the valley upside down. They rerouted the creeks multiple times. They pushed around somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 cubic yards of sediment."
In 2006, Trout Unlimited started gathering partners to redress the matter. In the days before active mine restoration rules, the miners posted less than $2,000 in bonds against the damage they did. It has now cost more than $500,000 to reclaim St. Louis Creek, and will take another $200,000 to reconnect Mattie V Creek to the Ninemile.
"Next spring when the floods come, fish from the Ninemile will be able to swim up Mattie V and spawn for the first time in 80 years," Roberts said. That's because this summer, stream restoration workers rebuilt 500 feet of new channel and rearranged 12,000 cubic yards of dredging tailings to connect the streams. At St. Louis Creek, they re-covered 10 acres of bulldozed hillsides with clean fill and straw mats to begin the process of growing new trees and brush there.
"We're standing on a waste dump here," Forest Service minerals program officer Peter Werner said during a tour of the St. Louis site. "There's 24 inches of new material capping the waste."
A drainage ditch keeps runoff water from passing through the mine waste, so the accumulated copper, arsenic and other toxic metals will stop leaching into the creek. Compost, straw mats, and timber slash cover the new hillsides to give plants a safe place to grow. Within five or 10 years, the area should be hard to distinguish from the rest of the thick-grown forest jungle of the upper Ninemile.
"This project made it to the top because it's the headwaters of so much of this area," said state Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, who shepherded some of the funding through the Legislature. "It was a challenge because there are so many other priorities, but this one fit right in line with the purpose of the Reclamation and Development Grant Program" of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The Forest Service also had money to contribute, as did the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Trout Unlimited donors. Missoula County commissioners were the lead grant applicants on many of the funding requests. Commissioner Jean Curtiss said the effort dovetailed with water protection efforts going on at the former Milltown Dam on the east side of the county.
While much of the work on the two creeks is done already, Trout Unlimited's Roberts said there's more to come.
"We've got at least eight other tributaries up here to complete," he said. "We could easily spend another $1 million here in the next five years."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.