By Cassidy Randall, Rolling Stone

smith river montana

A copper mine threatens the iconic Smith River. It will bring jobs and the copper needed for a renewable-energy future, but is it worth the risk to one of the last pristine waterways?

Geologist Jerry Zieg grew up next to the Smith River in central Montana, on the ranch his family has owned for five generations. The river irrigated their land. He learned to fish from its pristine bounty of westslope cutthroat trout. The river’s russet canyon walls, with 1,000-year-old pictographs drawn by the Besant and Avonlea peoples, were what first inspired his fascination with geology. Later, when he married his wife, the two floated the Smith for their honeymoon. “My family sold the part right on the river in the mid-Eighties, but I still have the rest of that land where I grew up on the Smith,” he says proudly.

He’s not alone in his reverence for the Smith. It is hallowed water in Montana. More than the Blackfoot, which reached mythical status in A River Runs Through It, and more than the federally protected Flathead, which makes up the borders of Glacier National Park, the Smith, which flows for 59 off-the-grid miles through the Belt Mountains, is iconic as the state’s sole permitted river; every year, thousands of Montanans and out-of-staters enter a lottery to snag a coveted spot to float and fish it.

In 2010, when a grassroots coalition called Montanans for Healthy Rivers formed to protect the veins of Montana’s heritage, the group put boots on the ground in communities all over Montana to find out which waters people thought were worthiest of preserving. “[The Smith] came up around the state,” says Kascie Herron, Northern Rockies associate director for the conservation organization American Rivers. “It’s one of those where it’s everyone’s river, even if it’s not in your backyard. The Smith is the soul of Montana.”

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