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Ronald Reagan was in the White House, men wore frighteningly short shorts and Missoulians threw everything from crap to concrete in the Clark Fork River when a new organization decided some changes needed to happen.

“The film of the year was ‘Back to the Future’,” recalled Peter Nielsen, who once wore some of those shorts and helped found what became the Clark Fork Coalition after watching a new load of riprap get tipped onto the banks beside the Higgins Avenue Bridge. “The Frenchtown paper mill’s discharge permit really galvanized everyone. They were dumping 20 million gallons of wastewater into the river every day. Sometimes it seems it really is ‘Back to the Future’ – we’re still fighting that doggone permit today. It just won’t go away.”

But since 1985, the list of things that have gone away – or come back – at the urging of the Clark Fork Coalition is balanced only by the things it still plans to do.

Milltown Dam and its reservoir of century-old arsenic and lead tailings have been replaced by a restored river confluence and extensive state park complex. Riprap and raw sewage no longer routinely wind up in the river. But more water does, thanks to agreements with irrigators and landowners along the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork to preserve more in-stream flow.


While the Clark Fork Coalition and Milltown Dam have seemed synonymous for the past two decades, the organization has always taken a wider perspective, according to current executive director Karen Knudsen.

“We got started in 1985 to restore the Clark Fork watershed,” Knudsen said. “That’s really defined our approach and our stakeholders. That’s 14 million acres, 320 miles of main-stem river and 28,000 miles of tributaries and streams. We try to understand what the watershed needs most from us.”

The federal Superfund program was just getting started then, and Montana benefited from a family connection. CFC board member Kathy Hadley was the sister of Lois “Mother of Superfund” Gibbs, the Love Canal resident who led the campaign to get congressional approval of the cleanup effort. Knudsen credited Hadley with first describing how the ecological disaster at Butte’s Berkeley Pit and the mine waste behind Milltown Dam were really one big problem – dots connected by the Clark Fork River.

Swimming upstream barely describes the difficulty of getting solutions to that problem. Neilsen said at one low point, the Montana government nearly settled the Atlantic Richfield Co.’s pollution liability for $50,000. CFC advocates pushed the Legislature to keep its attorneys in the fight. Eventually, Arco settled for approximately $500 million.

The break came Feb. 9, 1996, when the Blackfoot River launched an ice floe 10 feet thick and 10 miles long at Milltown Dam. Dam operators opened the floodgates as far as they would go, releasing 14,000 cubic feet of water a second. That drained the reservoir enough to ground the ice before it could demolish the dam’s wooden crib structure. In the process, the ice scoured up decades of mining waste. Copper levels went from 30 parts per billion to 770 parts per billion overnight, killing fish all the way to Lake Pend Oreille.

“We became much more well-known through Milltown,” CFC science director Chris Brick said. “It’s always hard to explain what you’re doing sitting in long, legal meetings, but that’s how most of the work gets done. This was a big, visible project that raised our profile.”

Before the month was over, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed position from leaving the dam in place to considering its removal. By 1999, Arco had reached a settlement with the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program for major remediation of the Clark Fork watershed. In 2005, it finalized the settlement that specifically removed Milltown Dam. And in 2008, it paid for the Upper Clark Fork rehabilitation.

CFC also kept the demand up for new tools to measure river health. Brick said the past 10 years particularly saw improvements in understanding how a floodplain and underground aquifer connect (so a rebuilt riparian area actually grows where it’s supposed to) or what height to build a new riverbank (so willows and other plants take root, instead of getting washed away).

“We saw a lot of older projects that took decades to become established,” Brick said. “Now, we’re able to do it in a couple of years.


In 2005, CFC bought a 2,300-acre working ranch near Deer Lodge. The move had several strategic goals. One was to provide a guinea pig landowner for the proposed Upper Clark Fork remediation work, which is now a 15-phase project restoring mine waste-damaged riverbanks between Anaconda and Garrison. Another was to keep the organization grounded in the rural as well as urban perspective of river life.

“That’s tied to our mission in a big way,” said Will McDowell, CFC’s restoration director. “It was huge for the coalition to become a ranch owner and manager – to go from this urban focus to learn about the realities of people who own the majority of the land along the upper river.”

In addition to demonstrating the land-management practices it preached, CFC used its agricultural outpost to help underpin the Clark Fork Market, Missoula’s second weekly downtown market that features meats and prepared foods in addition to produce.

It’s gone from a shared office with one paid employee to its own building with a staff of 13 and a $1.5 million budget. The Clark Fork Coalition has not been ranked by the national Charity Navigator evaluation service. However, a review of its latest financial disclosure forms using some of Charity Navigator’s measuring sticks finds it met the standards set for financial health, transparency and accountability.

Its track record has also earned attention on a national level. When the mine waste outbreak on Colorado’s Animas River occurred last summer, Knudsen said she immediately started getting calls from people and groups there seeking advice about what happens next in a major cleanup challenge. So did folks in South Carolina in October, when floodwaters damaged or destroyed more than a dozen small dams.

“The facts and science are out there,” Knudsen said. “Looking back on 30 years, we’ve had some slam-dunk successes. But they only happened because this community came together and got it done. They made it happen.”

“We started out as river watchdogs,” Nielsen added. “Now we’re more like river border collies.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.