By Steve Gilbert, Former MEIC Board Member
I have a warm spot in my heart for lots of places in Montana. I’ve worked and played in all 56 counties and have serious emotional ties to some incredible pieces of country. Among my all-time favorites is the Smith River and the enormous and beautiful country it drains.
I guided fly fishers on the Smith for 20 years and have canoed, floated, fished, and hunted it for more than 35. Both of my kids floated it as youngsters and now work on the river with an outfitter. And they would tell you how much they have grown to love it as well.
They are a small part of the very large group of people who love it and depend on its clear, clean water for a significant portion of their livelihoods. The floating season isn’t long on the Smith - say April through October in a very exceptional water year. But during the peak floating months of May, June and July, hundreds of people salt away millions of dollars that can be traced directly to work the Smith provides. It is
the kind of work that minimally affects the resource and could last forever.
I say “could last” because it will do so only as long as its water quality is not compromised by people eager for short-term gain. Well, guess what? Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has once again thrown caution to the winds and has given another Canadian mining company the green light to “explore” for minerals in the headwaters of Sheep Creek, one of the Smith’s exceptional trout spawning tributaries.
DEQ has a long history of telling us “don’t worry, we’re sure there won’t be impacts that can’t be mitigated, trust us.” Remember Zortman-Landusky, where another Canadian mining company cut and ran? They destroyed thousands of acres in the Little Rockies, poisoned a beautiful prairie stream and left Montanans holding the bag for water treatment in perpetuity? DEQ told us not to worry during that project’s exploration phase too.
The proposed “exploration” tunnel on Sheep Creek will be 18’ by 18’ by one mile long. The rock they will pull out of that shaft is sulfidic. This means that when it is exposed to air and water, sulfuric acid is created. It will drain into the Smith and kill aquatic insects, riparian vegetation and fish. The list of sulfide ore mines in the west that killed streams is as long as this “exploration” shaft.
DEQ is supposed to work for us, not industry. They are legally mandated to help provide us with the clean and healthful environment guaranteed in the Montana
Constitution. They most often do neither and can only be held accountable when you and I raise hell and sue them.
MEIC is doing just that and we need your help. It will be an expensive battle, and I hope you feel like I do about the Smith River. It’s worth whatever we can afford to give it.
Steve Gilbert is a former MEIC board member and a recent recipient of the Len and Sandy Sargent Award, given rarely for work above and beyond the call of duty to MEIC.