The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This Montana river is threatened by one senator and a bitter clash over use of public lands

The confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers shines in the afternoon light in Milltown, Mont. on Sept. 11, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

John N. Maclean, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune for 30 years, is the author of "Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River."

When after many years I finally found a way back to the Blackfoot River in western Montana, it was a dream come true. I returned at a lucky time, after an extraordinary restoration effort had brought the river back to health from a sorry state, caused by pollution and overfishing.

But today, thanks to one U.S. senator and the increasingly bitter clash over use of public lands in the West, the cold, clear waters of the Blackfoot are endangered once again.

I had fished the Blackfoot virtually every season of my boyhood in the 1950s and ‘60s, but only intermittently during a 30-year newspaper career based mostly in Washington, D.C. The partial collapse of a dam at the river’s headwaters in the 1970s sent deadly mining waste throughout its 75-mile length. After that, overfishing and general abuse resulted in such poor conditions that state authorities stopped doing fish counts — there weren’t enough to matter.

Then in the 1990s, the river underwent a near-miraculous recovery, thanks in part to my father Norman Maclean’s novella, "A River Runs Through It," and the Robert Redford movie of the same name, which together made the Blackfoot an international fly-fishing phenomenon. Millions of dollars in private and governmental funds poured in: Tributaries were restored, fencing was installed to keep cattle from using the river as a sewer, and other measures were taken — an estimated 500 projects in all. The trout population rebounded, and the restoration effort became a model for rivers nationwide.

By the time I again began spending months in western Montana, the Blackfoot fished better than when I was a boy. The river has been a family affair ever since my grandfather leased a plot on Seeley Lake from the U.S. Forest Service in 1921 and built the log cabin we still use 100 years later, an easy drive from the Blackfoot. I could pack a hunk of hard chocolate for energy, spend hours mostly alone on the river, and reliably hook a rainbow, cutthroat or brown trout big enough to have been the highlight of a season when I was a kid.

Today, the Blackfoot faces growing threats from overuse and climate change. Use of the Blackfoot — mainly boats loaded with fisherfolk and sightseers — was up 40 percent last year compared with the year before, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), a state agency. The pandemic has pushed up numbers, but “loving the Blackfoot to death,” as it’s called, was an issue before covid-19 hit.

This year, climate change brought a perfect storm of low snowpack, drought, record-breaking heat and low water flows that exerted enormous pressure on fisheries that already were under stress from overuse. To ease the pressure on the trout populations, FWP imposed restrictions that closed many of Montana’s rivers to fishing at the peak of the summer.

The Blackfoot was the exception. It was one of the few rivers that remained open, thanks in part to four tributaries that serve as a constant source of cold and clean water, offering fish the thermal refuge they need to stay alive during drought. It’s these four tributaries that a bill now before Congress would protect from logging, mining, motorized use and road building, any of which could obstruct or undermine the tributaries’ cold, clean flow into the main stem.

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) would designate nearly 80,000 acres at the headwaters of the Blackfoot as Wilderness, extending protection to the four tributaries and their spawning grounds. It also would open about 2,000 acres of land elsewhere to snowmobiling and 3,800 acres for mountain biking. At a time when Montana is beset by complicated cultural and political divides, the legislation has overwhelming public support. The University of Montana Public Lands survey from 2020 showed 75 percent support among Montanans. And 170 groups, organizations and businesses have endorsed the bill — timber companies, outfitter associations and hunter groups among them.

The problem the bill faces is Montana’s Republican senator, Steve Daines.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing on Oct. 19, Daines in effect took the bill hostage. He announced that he was tying the Blackfoot measure to a bill he says he’s going to introduce that would strip protections from up to 300,000 acres of wild public lands elsewhere in the state and open them to mining, logging, road building and other forms of development. A bill he offered in 2017 did much the same thing and drew the support of only 8 percent of Montanans, according to the same 2020 survey.

Conservation is not a zero-sum game. The Blackfoot should not be held hostage to a hugely unpopular measure that would open some of Montana’s wildest places to development. Montanans of both parties already have come together around the storied river. Now it’s time for Daines to join them and preserve a vital watershed.