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Big Blackfoot River

In ancient times, the Blackfoot River Canyon was used by the Bitterroot Salish Indians from the Bitterroot Valley and the Nez Perce Indians from the Weippe Prairie in Idaho as a travel way in the fall to hunt the buffalo east of the Continental Divide. Captain Meriwether Lewis, on his return trip, used the Blackfoot River trail to get back to his cache below the great falls of the Missouri River.

Mike Horse Mine

There are 150 un-reclaimed copper, silver and gold mines releasing their corrosive, acid mine drainage into the Blackfoot River. It is a plague that keeps requiring constant remediation at great expense. The Mike Horse Mine is 3 miles up Beartrap Creek from the Blackfoot river. The mine was originally claimed from public land in 1890 by Joseph Hartmiller who owned a horse named Mike. By 1901 the mine adit was 1,100 ft. long. The mine was sold many times, but developers soon went broke and Hartmiller would foreclose and get it back, a common story of mining in Montana. In 1940, the mine reopened for lead and zinc. It was deepened and the mill was rebuilt, all the time leaking its toxic waste water into Beartrap Creek. In 1945, the American Smelting & Refining Co. (ASARCO) purchased the mine, lengthened it 1 mile and deepened it 800 ft. In 1970, the Anaconda Mining Co. (ACM) leased the mine, when President Allende chased ACM out of Chile. ACM found they could not turn it into an open pit mine. One million cubic yards of mining waste was stored in Beartrap Canyon behind a poorly designed dam that washed out in 1975. A wall of toxic mud flushed down the Blackfoot River, killing all the fish and aquatic life 10 miles downstream. The remaining waste still pollutes the river.

In 1977, the Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) purchased the mine from ACM and since owns the mine, dam and heaps of mining waste. ARCO declared bankruptcy and does not have the funds to make a $50,000 engineering study to dismantle the dam or reclaim the area. The broken dam is eroding away and contains several sink holes and would not stand another flood or an earthquake. The Mike Horse Dam separates tons of toxic mine tailings from the headwaters of the Blackfoot River and if it fails again the damage will be exponential. In May, 2005, 2 inches of rain fell above the dam and water began seeping from the toe of the 400 ft. long dam. The streams above the dam braided through the piled up mining waste and a 7 ft. wide void was found. Removing the dam will now require relocating 2 million cubic yards of tailings, mostly within the dam itself. ASARCO and ARCO have used and abused our public streams and must be made responsible for their reclamation.

7-Up Pete Mine

Six miles east of Lincoln on Montana Highway 200 near the Blackfoot River at McDonald Meadow is the location of the 7Up Pete joint venture mining claim. Originally located by Phelps Dodge Mining Co., the claim was sold to Canyon Resources, Inc. The claim is on Montana State School Trust Section 6 and Sieben Ranch Co. land. If built, the gold mine would have been the largest in Montana with a pit 1200 ft. deep, 1 mile long and 1 mile wide, similar to the Berkeley Pit in Butte. 900 million tons of earth would have been moved over 12 to 15 years. It would have taken 100 tons of ore to retrieve 1 ounce of gold. In an area of high water tables there would have been waste rock dumps and cyanide heap leach pads, and 5,800,000 gallons of groundwater would have been pumped each day, ending up in the Blackfoot River. Highway 200 would have been moved within 300 ft. of the river.

In 1997, the firm of Morrison & Maierle were doing the engineering. Later the Army Corps of Engineers and MT Department of Environmental Quality accused the firm of incompetence and recommended they be fired from doing the EIS, and Terra Matrix from Boulder, CO, was hired to provide their services. Since then, there has been much bickering and fault finding among DEQ, Morrison & Maierle and Terra Matrix. Work on the EIS was stopped when Canyon Resources did not pay the $163,700 for previous work and $500,000 was asked in advance for future work. Canyon Resources has been floundering from lack of credit.

In 1998, the environmental community sponsored Voter Initiative 137, banning the use of cyanide to separate gold from ore in all new mines and the initiative was passed by Montana voters. In 2004, the mining community sponsored Initiative 147 with the intent to return cyanide heap leaching, open pit gold mining to Montana, but this initiative was soundly defeated by a vote of 256,658 against and 185,695 in favor. We all thought we had heard the last of 7-Up Pete Joint Venture and the failed mining company Canyon Resources, but like a recurring nightmare, Richard De Voto, the president of Canyon Resources, is now suing in federal and state courts for the $70,000,000 they had expected to make on their venture before I-137 was passed, saying I-137 “deprived them of lucrative profits.” The lawsuit names the State of Montana as defendant and asks the court to strike down I-137 because it interferes with existing contracts, and demands “takings” compensation for temporary and permanent losses. When his demands for compensation by Montanans were struck down by the courts, Mr. De Voto resorted to some spiteful remarks, saying the mining industry “would not touch Montana with a 10-ft. pole.” It must be said that Canyon Resources is in the very risky business of gold mining and should not be able to bill Montanans when this project fails.

Let’s not make the mistake of complacency – the low-grade gold is still there and someone will want to mine it. Jewelry accounts for 84% of all gold mined, while only 6% is used for electronics. The remaining 10% goes to coinage and gold hoarding by people in insecure times. We must not jeopardize Montana rivers and compromise our lands for such luxurious, non-essential consumption.

The North Fork of the Blackfoot River, draining the south portion of the Scapegoat Wilderness in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, is essentially a mountain wilderness river of deep canyons and high peaks. It contributes about one-third of the Blackfoot’s total flow 54 miles downstream at its confluence with the Clark Fork River. It provides habitat for the endangered native bull trout and the “species of special concern” westslope cutthroat trout. The lower 5.5 miles of the North Fork are impacted by dewatering from irrigation diversions on Kleinschmidt Flat. Average runoff is about 275,000 acre/ft. per year. Improvements in ditches and sprinkler systems on existing irrigated acres could result in additional water for instream flow in dewatered sections of the river.

The DEQ, with the cooperation of the Blackfoot Challenge, completed a water quality and river restoration plan for the section from the headwaters to Nevada Creek confluence. The river’s classification through the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program is B-1, meaning suitable for cold water fishery as well as useful for household, wildlife, irrigation and recreation uses. The goal is a 30% reduction in sediment and 75% reduction in bank erosion. In fiscal year 2005, the Blackfoot Challenge will receive $18,300,000 from the federal government for land purchase in the Blackfoot River corridor.

MTFWP, the BLM and the Blackfoot River Recreation Steering Committee are working on implementing a Special Recreation Permit System for the Blackfoot River. The system would apply to “commercial activities, competitive events or organized group events” on MTFWP or BLM owned lands along the river. It would not apply, at least not at this time, to the general recreation public nor place limits on outfitters. The permit system would enable the agencies to recover some of the costs associated with managing commercial, competitive and organized events. ~

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