The waters of the Blackfoot River mesmerized and haunted Norman Maclean, who fished in the river all his life and celebrated its mysteries in "A River Runs Through It."
Montana voters approved an initiative six years ago that was to have forever protected the Blackfoot from a proposed cyanide open-pit gold mine near the river's headwaters.
But because of another initiative, which was proposed and is being bankrolled by a Colorado mining company, Montanans will be asked on Nov. 2 to remove those protections. If it passes, Initiative 147 would remove the 1998 ban on cyanide heap-leach gold mining, a process that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says has sullied the state with water pollution problems that will continue in perpetuity.
The fight between mining and environmental interests is likely to be a doozy, and not just because Maclean's classic story of the river (and Robert Redford's 1992 movie based on the story) sanctified the Blackfoot as a temple for fly-fishing. The vote is also shaping up as a contest between two larger stories about what it means to live in the Rocky Mountain West.
The story championed by Canyon Resources Corp., the Golden, Colo., company that wants to build the huge gold mine on the Blackfoot, harks back to Montana's past, when fulfilling manifest destiny and finding a good job depended on resource extraction -- particularly the mining of gold, silver and copper.
Backers of this narrative are promoting the mining initiative this summer at Kiwanis Club meetings and county fairs as a tradition-rich way of reducing unemployment and increasing state tax revenue. At fair booths, paid supporters of Initiative 147 invite children to try their hand at panning for gold.
"There is mineral wealth in Montana, and citizens want a balanced economy that keeps children from moving out of state," said Richard H. De Voto, president of Canyon Resources, which has provided 97 percent of the $1 million spent so far to promote the initiative.
The company has outspent its opponents by 395 to 1, campaign records show. Both sides said the company could spend an additional $3 million to $4 million to advertise its initiative, a large sum in a state with 917,000 residents. That much money will buy a lot of local television time. In Billings, the state's largest media market, 30-second television ads during prime time cost $900.
The other story in the mining fight asks voters to wake up to the economic realities of modern Montana.
It is a state where, according to federal figures, retiree income amounts to three times the combined personal income from mining, logging, ranching, farming and oil and gas extraction.
This New West narrative says there is nothing more important to Montana's economy than protecting natural amenities, such as the Blackfoot, that lure wealthy newcomers to the state.
"This mine on the Blackfoot is threatening the very future of Montana," said Jay D. Proops, a retired multimillionaire from Chicago and a river-loving newcomer who in 1996 bought an enormous cattle ranch that runs for six miles along the banks of the Blackfoot. "This river has brought a vast amount of clean recreational industry into the state. That holds a lot more promise than trying to mine microscopic particles of gold out of a whole mountainside."
At the proposed mine on the Blackfoot, gold would be extracted from 537 million tons of low-grade ore and treated with cyanide, a poison that, in theory, is kept out of surface and groundwater by using large plastic liners. In practice, mining experts say, the liners almost always leak.
Mining was once a driving force in Montana's economic life, but now it is all but insignificant, according to economists who study the Rocky Mountain West.
Hard-rock mining amounted to one-half of 1 percent of state income in 2000, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Those figures also show that mining contributed 0.2 percent to net state income growth over the past three decades. In that time, 56 percent of growth has come from retiree earnings, such as dividends, interest and pensions. Retiree money is fueling a sustained boom in home construction and service industries.
Between 1970 and 2000, the number of mining jobs in the state (a category that includes hard-rock, coal and oil and gas) fell by 728, to a total of 6,597. Over those 30 years, service and professional employment jumped by 210,926 jobs -- accounting for 81 percent of job growth in Montana, according to the Commerce Department.
"The engine of growth has been recreational opportunities, scenic characteristics and wildlife," said Thomas M. Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula. "To threaten this engine with a mine on the Blackfoot is nuts, from an economic point of view."
Yet, Power has concluded, many Montana voters tend not to focus on the economy when they make public policy decisions. Instead, he said, they "look in the rearview mirror at an economy that no longer exists."
"There is a mythical and cultural component to these decisions that has folks buying into a fantasy of what life under the Big Sky is all about," he said. "White-collar workers make cultural connections with industries such as mining that are part of the past, and they see themselves as rugged individualists."
The power of the extractive myth, judging by electoral results and the public positions of leading state politicians, is still potent. When Montanans voted in 1998 to ban cyanide heap-leach gold mining to protect the Blackfoot, the margin of victory was four percentage points. Montana Gov. Judy Martz (R) said this year that she supports the initiative that would lift the ban on cyanide mining.
Canyon Resources indicated that its polling shows that Montanans are open to rethinking the ban.
"This is an economic issue," said De Voto, president of Canyon Resources, noting that the mine would create 300 jobs for at least 14 years. "There is a billion dollars that would be spent in Montana over the life of this one mine and $100 million in royalties to the state school system."
De Voto said that the mine would have no adverse environmental effects on the Blackfoot, where in recent years federal, state and private sources have committed more than $100 million to protect the river, its tributaries and surrounding land. "We will have zero impact on that river, zero," he said.
Mining experts and state regulators said they are skeptical.
"Even with the very best engineering and design, you simply cannot make any guarantee that there would not be contamination from cyanide mining, especially in a place like the Blackfoot Valley, where the groundwater is so close to the surface," said Jim Kuipers, a mining engineer and private consultant who managed a large cyanide mine in Nevada.
"In Montana, we haven't seen a single case where there wasn't damage to ground and/or surface water," Kuipers said.
A case in point is the Kendall gold mine near Lewistown, Mont., which closed in the 1990s and is still owned by Canyon Resources. State regulators say the cyanide mine has polluted streams and groundwater and that the company has a long history of being obstreperous in negotiations about cleaning up its mess.
"It has been very frustrating dealing with Canyon Resources," said Jan Sensibaugh, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
She said the company has refused to pay for state-mandated environmental impact studies and is now rushing ahead with a poorly conceived cleanup plan that does not have state approval.
Alan and Stephanie Shammel own a 4,000-acre cattle ranch downstream from that mine. They say their groundwater was polluted in 1995 by cyanide, arsenic and selenium discharges from the mine's waste rock. Canyon Resources addressed that problem by installing pumps that have since dried up natural springs on parts of the ranch.
The Shammels say they are struggling to keep their ranch operating and that they have had to sue Canyon Resources for loss of water and pollution of the water they still have. "We will need water-quality treatment here for at least 100 years," Stephanie Shammel said.
She said she believes Montanans should be wary of Canyon Resources and its assurances for the future of the Blackfoot River. "Based on what we have seen, I think they are going to pollute that whole valley," she said.
De Voto, when asked about such criticism, said his company has done a responsible job at its mine near Lewistown and will do an even better job of protecting the Blackfoot River.