MILLTOWN — Saturday brought rain, wind and clouds to Milltown. But these conditions didn’t keep several dozen Montanans from coming out and enjoying their newest park.
Saturday marked the opening of Milltown State Park’s Confluence Area, at the junction of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. For many of those gathered, it was the culmination of a years-long effort to make a once-toxic reservoir fit for public enjoyment.
Park Manager Michael Kustudia has been involved with the effort since 2001.
”It has always been a labor of love,” he said, drawing encouragement from the guests assembled under the area’s shelter. "It's just really exciting to see so many people turn out on such a crummy day.”
Gathered there were members of the public and representatives from the many government and private groups that have aided in the river's restoration. Saturday’s ceremony stressed both that work and the centuries of human history that preceded it.
The area’s first users were local Native Americans, honored with performances by the Yamncut Singers, a Salish drum group. But the chain of events that led to this new park began in 1908, when “Copper King” William A. Clark completed a dam and reservoir at the site.
Subsequent flooding turned the area into a receptacle for some of western Montana’s toxic mining wastes. In the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Milltown a Superfund site, beginning years of cleanup work that included the dam’s removal in 2008.
But simply rendering the area non-toxic wouldn’t have been enough, explained Kustudia. He first got involved with the effort in 2001, as a volunteer with the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee.
“When I first got involved, there wasn't even a notion about trying to get a redevelopment effort going here,” he recalled. “Redevelopment's sort of the endgame for cleanup. It's one thing to clean it up, and then, you know, how does the public get the most benefit? How do the communities benefit from what's been done here?”
A working group was established in 2003 to answer that question. By the late 2000s, it had crafted plans for a state park at the rivers’ restored confluence.
Making that effort reality has required millions in funding from federal grants, local companies and philanthropic organizations. Now, it’s paying off: Milltown State Park covers more than 500 acres straddling the river, offering more than three miles of hiking trails and a range of other recreational opportunities. The Confluence Area, sited on the river’s north bank with easy access to Interstate 90, offers guests parking, a ranger station, restroom facilities, and wooden pavilions that hosted Saturday’s ceremony.
Speakers included representatives of the various agencies, companies and nonprofits that had supported the park. Doug Martin, Restoration Program Chief for the Montana Department of Justice’s Natural Resource Damage Program, shared Kustudia’s approval of their willingness to brave the weather.
“It’s 55 degrees and raining, and you guys, the community of this area showed up to support this project...Without that community support, I don't think that the project would be the success that it is today.”
Interpretive signage details the effort, as well as the industrial activities that precipitated it. While Clark’s dam and other past developments proved problematic, Park Manager Kustudia reminded guests they had also sustained prior generations of Montanans.
“We’re here celebrating the restoration of the river, but it’s not necessary to demonize the past,” he said.
Even on this rainy day, he pointed out, people were already enjoying the park. “Look at the hillside there. You've got kids planting trees, and people walking the trails and people learning about history.”
There were even two intrepid kayakers plying the muddy Clark Fork.
More work remains, Kustudia acknowledged, before Milltown can reach its full potential. Future projects include revegetation work, building new trail linkages, and keeping water from pooling on the shelters’ concrete floors.
Improvements to this area have come slowly but steadily, he said.
“The idea of a park was probably in 2003, and then a more detailed vision of that park in 2007, so here we are 11 years later at the Confluence Area of Milltown State Park,” Kustudia said.
He distilled his lessons from that time down to one word: “Patience. Things take time.”
For more information on Milltown State Park, visit http://stateparks.mt.gov/milltown/.