Elbow Lake dam 02

Officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks as well as the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation state the makeshift dam, or weir, could impede the upstream migration for some fish on the Endangered Species Act, according to an Environmental Assessment released in September.

Although the deadline to respond to the draft environmental assessment (EA) of the proposed removal and remediation of Elbow Lake “Dam” has passed, I want to share with the public the letter I sent to the state before the EA response period ended. I urge the state to give the process more time and allow for further public input. The project title itself is a contradiction to the proposal because the title refers to the name of what the state wants to eliminate, Elbow Lake.

An open letter to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation:

I have had my state lease on Elbow Lake since 1998. Notably, my lease refers to Elbow Lake, not the Clearwater River. I acquired my lease from my friend Anna Lukens who had the lease since leases were created at Elbow Lake in the mid-1950s. It was called Elbow Lake, with emphasis on the word “lake,” because it had been a lake since the early 1900s. What we know today as the “Chain of Lakes” including Seeley Lake, Salmon Lake, Elbow Lake (and others) are all actually wide spots in the Clearwater River.

As a historical reference, log drives from Seeley Lake down the Clearwater River to the Blackfoot and on to the mill in Bonner took place from 1907-1911. According to John Toole’s book "The Baron, The Logger, The Miner, and Me" and "Cabin Fever" published by the Seeley Lake Writers Club in 1990, splash dams were built in the Clearwater River between Seeley Lake and the confluence of the Clearwater River with the Blackfoot to help get the logs downstream to the mill in Bonner. According to "Cabin Fever," “Splash dams were built along the Clearwater River to hold back the water and raise the water level. Some of the mud sill logs near Seeley Lake can still be seen just below the bridge over the river on Riverview Drive. This was the first of the series of splash dam locations.”

The draft EA essentially provided almost no history of the waterway. The only historical reference can be found on page 3 where it says, “The purpose of the project is to return the stream bed and local water surface elevations to their natural and historic condition after many years of artificial impoundment. The dam was originally created more than two decades prior using local river rock.”

This statement in the EA misrepresents the century of Elbow Lake as a long-standing established lake habitat for the wildlife and humans that call it “home.” The “historic condition” is the lake because the weir at Elbow Lake has been in existence for at least 100 years, clearly surpassing “more than two decades.” At what point do you consider a simple rock weir to be “grandfathered” in by law? And, if a water use permit is required for the weir and the DNRC did not own a permit, was it not incumbent on the DNRC itself, as legal owner of much of the property on Elbow Lake, to apply for a permit?

Removing the rock weir is too drastic of a change to the environment and the associated wildlife habitat. An environmental impact statement is appropriate and other alternatives should be considered. Also, what will happen with 100 years of built-up silt on the bottom of the lake as it goes downstream?

I urge you to rethink this idea of suddenly removing the historic rock weir. Too many unanswered questions exist in this brief EA, and an EIS would demonstrate the respect that Elbow Lake deserves.

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Libby Langston is a retired Lolo National Forest fire educator and videographer of 32 seasons, has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana and has had an Elbow Lake lease since 1998.

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