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The Mining Industry Never Sleeps: Targeting Montana’s Smith River

Photo by Ginny Holt - Sheep Creek and Addled Writer.

John Holt fishing Sheep Creek. Photo: Ginny Holt.

I wrote the following paragraph last July 14th 2015 in a story about a Canadian mining company‘s proposal to mine gold in the upper Yellowstone near Emigrant Peak in the Paradise Valley. It held true then. More so now.

“One of the things I’ve learned over the decades of writing about the environment is that mining interests are determined, relentless, thorough and extremely forceful. These people won’t go away. It’s never too early to mount a concerted resistance to their planned malignancies. They make timber company executives look like a slap-happy, costumed group of greeters at Disney World.”

Enormous public pressure caused Canadian-based Lucky Minerals Inc. to back away from its planned mayhem in the Absaroka Mountains.

The latest venal insult to the natural world comes from yet another Canadian firm (they’ve done a fine job trashing their own country so now they look to other parts of the world) of brief lineage calling itself Tintina Resources, Inc. It submitted its application for the Black Butte Copper Project located on private land about one mile from the Smith River tributary of Sheep Creek last Wednesday to the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality. DEQ officials will study potential environmental effects prior to rendering a decision on whether or not to approve the application for the mine that would be about 20 miles from White Sulphur Springs.

Save Our Smith (SOS), an organization formed to stop this obscenity, describes the Smith this way, “Montana’s Smith River is renowned worldwide for its clean water, rugged canyon scenery, and blue ribbon trout fishery. The Smith is Montana’s only permitted recreational river. The permitted section of the Smith River winds 59 miles through a remote canyon in the Big Belt Mountains. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks classifies the Smith River’s fishery as high-value, owing to its bountiful population of rainbow, brown, westslope cutthroat, and brook trout. The canyon walls of the Smith also boast some of the best examples of Native American pictographs in Montana.”

Tintina, headquartered in Vancouver, B.C. and partnered with Australian-based Sandfire Resources on this project, claims the site holds one of the highest-grade copper deposits on the planet with more than 11 million tons of the ore beneath the surface.

The Smith is Montana’s only permitted river due to public demand to experience its fishing and recreational opportunities. Use of the river generates more than $10 million in annual revenue from these activities. A portion of the river is managed as a State Park, featuring a 59-mile stretch of river with only one put-in and one take-out point. The Smith River and its tributaries provide crucial habitat and spawning grounds for regional trout fisheries. The Sheep Creek drainage accounts for over half of tributary spawning of rainbow trout in the Smith River drainage, and rainbow trout have been known to travel nearly 200 miles round-trip from the Missouri River to spawn.

Floating the Smith is a calming, regenerating and at times humbling experience. Floating beneath towering sandstone cliffs, camping on forested banks or catching large brown trout as abundant and varied wildlife looks on with mild curiosity is a natural process for stepping out of linear time.

According to SOS the proposed mine is particularly a concern because the copper extraction will involve digging into sulfide minerals, which when exposed to air and water, can react to form sulfuric acid in a process known as acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Groundwater pumping from mining activities could potentially lower the water table, and create a “cone of depression” that extends to the Sheep Creek alluvium – posing a threat to adjacent stream flows. The Smith River and Sheep Creek suffer from low flows during most years, putting pressure on downstream water users and preventing the fishery from reaching its potential. Captured groundwater will contain arsenic and other toxic substances that pose a serious threat to water quality.

This October my wife Ginny and I spent several days enjoying the Sheep Creek drainage – she photographed the land while I fished. The aspens were blazing yellow-gold. The creeks were icy clear and full of riotously colored westslope cutthroat and brook trout. Deer and elk wandered the forest while red-tailed hawks, eagles and wandering vultures cruised the thermals. At night he sky was sliced the glowing white band that is the the Milky Way only slightly diminished by a rising full moon after midnight. Nighthawks boomed above us. This is a truly glorious, peaceful place. Tintina’s proposed disaster would be located just a few miles from where we camped.

It is important that all of us who care for such wonders as Sheep Creek and the Smith River landscape do everything we can to stop these greedy bastards dead in their tracks and send them scurrying back home. A good place to start is by checking out the Save Our Smith website at http://www.saveoursmith.com/ .

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