Former Congressman Pat Williams called it “America’s best backyard.”
Fourteen miles up a rock-strewn road along Rattlesnake Creek, a little-visited trailhead beckons to national-park-quality scenery. Glacial cirques, crystalline lakes, bountiful huckleberry patches and a thoughtful network of trails await in the Rattlesnake National Wilderness.
And like any backyard, some upkeep is expected. That puts Missoula residents in a remarkable position as hands-on decision-makers for a federal treasure.
To explain in somewhat backwards fashion, the city’s acquisition of Mountain Water Co. in 2017 included ownership of eight lakes the private company used as reserve water reservoirs. Those lakes, and the right to maintain the dams controlling them, were grandfathered into the federal legislation creating the Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area in 1980.
The Montana Power Co. built those dams between 1911 and 1923, mostly by hand and horse-drawn labor. Around that time, Lolo National Forest archives note that 139 people lived in the northern tip of the Rattlesnake Valley, above where the present-day vehicle parking lot and trailhead serve the National Recreation Area.
“In the early 1900s, there were as many as 19 homes in the upper drainage with amenities such as mail and newspaper delivery,” the Lolo’s Rattlesnake National Recreation Area brochure states. “In 1911, there was a phone line that ran north up to the Franklin Guard Station and over the ridge to Gold Creek. Residents built a school near the confluence of Spring and Rattlesnake creeks and operated it from 1907 to 1930.”
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Montana Power sold its dams and water rights to Mountain Water in 1979. It also owned about 21,000 acres of the Rattlesnake drainage, which it transferred to the Forest Service as part of the wilderness legislation in return for an opportunity to acquire coal leases in eastern Montana in 1983.
The Forest Service built the main trailhead off Rattlesnake Drive in 1987, adding a horse access in 1992. Another trail entrance sits at the tip of the Lincolnwood neighborhood where Mountain Line Route 5 turns around, making the Rattlesnake one of the only wilderness areas in the nation with city bus service.
Compromise has shaped the Rattlesnake from its historic beginnings to its federal protection, and now looms over its future management. Williams’ bill split the area into a 33,000-acre wilderness and 28,000-acre national recreation area, which allows more biking and forest activity.
Even during its remarkably swift congressional passage (introduction to presidential signing in just two months), a last-minute demand by then-Sen. John Melcher created the “Cherry Stem” allowing bicycle and wagon access along 4.5 miles of upper Rattlesnake Creek in what otherwise would have been a no-wheels-allowed wilderness. That headed off threatened opposition by motorcycle enthusiasts who had sought access to the upper creek drainage on the old Montana Power roads.
Mountain Water, for its part, retained the right to drive maintenance trucks up the roads, and to fly helicopters into the lake basins. The Forest Service, and subsequently, the city of Missoula, also have limited ability to drive vehicles into the wilderness to work on the lakes.
The big question now, is what to do with those lakes?
'Giant nursery habitat'
Archeological records confirm people have been enjoying those lakes and streams since at least 1460 AD — the date of some human remains found along Rattlesnake Creek. Salish Indians routinely used it when moving between the Jocko, Clearwater and Blackfoot river drainages.
Lots of animals use it too. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist Liz Bradley’s aerial surveys report at least 13 mountain goats and around 200 elk inhabiting the upper drainage. Black bears, wolves, mountain lions and occasionally grizzly bears hunt them.
Of the 45 lakes bigger than an acre in size, 13 have self-sustaining trout populations. Those lakes were naturally fishless, and artificially stocked in the early 20th century. Stocking ceased after the wilderness designation in 1980, but many populations of rainbow, Yellowstone cutthroat and native Westslope cutthroat trout hung on in isolation above their dams. They spawn in the tiny inlet streams from the surrounding cirque wall snowbanks.
Rattlesnake Creek below the dams has three distinct fisheries. From its mouth at the Clark Fork River 4.5 miles up to the former Mountain Water Dam (removed last year), the creek has been hemmed in by housing and lost most of its good habitat. Fishing is allowed, but not very good, according to FWP fisheries biologist Ladd Knotek.
From the former dam to Beescove Creek — probably the most popular trail section for hikers, bikers and dog-walkers — no fishing is allowed to protect spawning gravels used by bull, cutthroat and rainbow trout.
“It’s a giant nursery habitat for the Clark Fork River fishery,” Knotek said. “Rattlesnake Creek is producing most of the trout that support the fishery down through town.”
Anglers willing to sweat their way 5 miles from the main trailhead past Beescove Creek have the whole rest of the Rattlesnake to cast a line. Few river fish push above Franklin Bridge (7 miles up), leaving the upper stream to resident trout and some hybrids produced by mating with nonnatives flushed down through the dam outlets. The lake basins are otherwise too remote for natural fish colonization.
Campers who make it to the upper basin have their choice of lakeside campsites to choose from. On a recent two-day dam inspection tour, Missoula City Conservation Lands workers encountered only two other wilderness visitors — two women trail runners at Sanders Lake who’d started their run that morning and expected to be back in town by early afternoon after a 40-mile roundtrip.
Knotek estimates the upper Rattlesnake lakes get about 100 angler-days per year. By comparison, Boulder Lake just outside the wilderness boundary to the east (still artificially stocked and with a 6-mile hike up the Gold Creek drainage) sees two to three times more annual activity.
More people probably experience the Upper Rattlesnake as hunters. For a while in the early 2000s elk populations there were high enough that FWP offered special elk cow tags to encourage harvest there. Bradley said those numbers have reduced to the point that extra encouragement is no longer needed. But many archers still take advantage of early season rut hunts, riding their “meat cycles” up the Cherry Stem to the meadows where they stage multi-day excursions into the lake basins.
No 'pristine nature'
The Wilderness Act of 1964 clearly states the intentions of the United States’ people regarding special natural places.
“Wilderness means we allow nature to function on its own terms — we don’t intervene for some perceived human benefit at the time,” said George Nickas of the Missoula-based Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness advocacy group founded by some of the original drafters of the Wilderness Act. “In order to have wilderness, where we allow nature to function without our interventions, it means sometimes we can’t have everything we want.”
The act also acknowledges there’s no such thing as “pristine nature.” The dams got built before wilderness was a legal concept. Mountain Water stopped using them for drinking water after a giardia scare in 1983.
Consider McKinley Lake. It holds about 168 acre-feet of water, enough to turn the Missoula County Fairgrounds into a 4-foot-deep wading pool. Its dam stands 15 feet high, and has beautiful campsites on either end.
But in the brush beyond the eastern tent spot, an emergency spillway threatens significant hazards. Intended to gently release excess water, it instead has eroded a 100-foot gash into the steep mountainside below the basin. Known as a “headcut,” that gash is slowly working its way back toward the dam, where it could eventually trigger a catastrophic failure.
McKinley Lake sits so far back in the Rattlesnake, the only humans at risk would be those unlucky enough to be hiking there that moment. But rebuilding the dam to Forest Service standards would cost an estimated $1 million.
Increasing its storage capacity would remove the spillway hazard and actually cost less money (about $706,000). Decommissioning the dam by carefully breaching it and revegetating the original shoreline would cost about $173,000.
That would cause some legal problems with the city’s water rights. With water in such short supply throughout Montana, failing to make use of a right leaves it vulnerable to someone else claiming it for their needs. Five irrigation ditches remain active in the Rattlesnake Creek drainage, and any of those users could conceivably demand access to the supply the city abandoned.
“McKinley Lake could be the pilot project,” said Rob Roberts, a project manager for Trout Unlimited, which is helping Missoula staff assess the dams. Cutting a notch in the 200-foot rock wall would lower the lake to its natural level, and allow its then-exposed shoreline to become a productive wetland. That would defuse the headcut risk, and eliminate the need for maintenance.
At the other end of the basin sits Sanders Lake. This geologic oddity sits on a shelf a thousand feet above the Rattlesnake Wilderness trailhead and a thousand feet below the Mosquito Peak ridgeline. A skinny waterfall draws a white line down the mountainside, visually indicating the lake’s 210-foot depth.
Meadows lush with mountain heather, spirea and fireweed decorate its shoreline. So do two small dams, built in 1912 and 1914. One outlet valve has silted shut, requiring underwater unplugging.
If that could be done, Sanders and nearby Big Lake together could deliver about 60 percent of the city’s water rights from the basin. Roberts and Missoula City Conservation Lands Manager Morgan Valliant are working with engineers to find the sweet spot of cost efficiency, water supply, maintenance minimum, wilderness character, and public interest for the lakes.
“There’s a lot of community values and collaboration opportunities to consider,” Roberts said. “We need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture with the rest of the lakes. The ability to manage just two lakes out of the eight the city owns could have a huge impact. We could triple the flow in Rattlesnake Creek in dry times — take a stream that was dry and dying and pump some life back into it.”
For Nickas, that’s like trying to be a little bit pregnant.
“If you retain any dams, then you have the issues of long-term maintenance and access, and everything you do from that point on is an affront to wilderness,” Nickas said. “Missoula has such a long history as really the center of wilderness management and stewardship in the country. We have an opportunity now to walk the talk. A city that likes to promote itself as a wilderness city has to find it within itself to honor that wilderness and preserve those values. It has to stop doing the things the private corporation was doing.”
In addition to the wildflowers, the lakes all bear scars and stumps from the dam construction a century ago. Tumble-down cabins littered with automobile frames and wheelbarrow buckets recall the mancamps that housed the dam builders.
The long approach up Rattlesnake Creek could be softened by the growing popularity of e-bikes, which currently aren’t allowed in the Rattlesnake by a rule rarely enforced. Other explorers have pioneered a shortcut bushwack across the Grant Creek Basin from Snowbowl Ski Area (whose chairlift ride cheats some of the elevation climb).
And the landscape itself is changing. Recent landslides have reshaped the shorelines of several lakes. This summer’s heat has forced many shrubs ahead in their seasonal progression, with fall colors appearing in late July. Stands of dead trees load a kinetic trigger for a restorative wildfire.
Whatever decisions come up for the Rattlesnake Wilderness, it won’t stay the same.