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Montana’s Newest State Park Signals Shift from Extraction to Recreation-Based Economy

In a state once dominated by mining and logging, outdoor recreation is now a bigger revenue generator

A pine-covered bluff rises above the Upper Clark Fork River in the heart of Milltown State Park, the latest addition to Montana’s state parks system. At the foot of the bluff, the Blackfoot River — of A River Runs Through It fame — surges into the westerly waters of the Clark Fork, having started its journey in the Scapegoat Wilderness, more than 75 miles away.

 Mike Kustudia at Milltown State Park Gabriel FurshongMilltown State Park manager Mike Kustudia hopes that the park, that’s situated on a former superfund site, can serve as a sort of outdoor museum, capable of documenting the seismic shifts in Montana’s economy and environmental standards.

The river’s banks are emerald green in mid-June, and a carpet of native grass, willow and young cottonwoods cover the floodplain. Native bull trout have returned to waters downstream and, earlier this spring, croaks of chorus frogs filled the ears of anglers. Bald eagles and osprey, fishing from far above, are routine sightings.

A viewer unschooled in Montana history might never suspect that just eight short years ago these verdant shores were buried in toxic mine tailings, piled with sunken logs, and drowned at the foot of a massive dam built in 1908 to generate electricity for the Western Lumber Company. The dam owner was a billionaire Copper King named William Clark, whose attempt to purchase a seat in the US Senate resulted in a constitutional amendment requiring popular election of US Senators.

In Clark’s time, the Treasure State’s future was frequently determined by men who had the resources to unearth its vast natural wealth. From 1886, when the first sawmill was established in Milltown, until 1981, when the Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s (ACM) smelter shut down, this stretch of the Clark Fork, between the mining town of Butte and the logging town of Missoula, was transformed into an industrial corridor, scarred with clear cuts and steeped in heavy metals.

“When the Clark Fork and Blackfoot were dammed, it was considered the best thing you could do to a river,” explains park manager, Mike Kustudia, whose grandfather worked for 39 years in the ACM’s lumber mill, across the Blackfoot River from Clark’s mill. “There’s a great quote from Clark,” he says, “I have it written down but it’s something like, ‘We have these resources and as an empire we need to develop them and those who follow can take care of themselves.’”

An ironic smile appears through Kustudia’s salt and pepper beard as he gestures toward the free flowing confluence. “And you know, if you think about it, it’s like, well, we did.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency declared the 120-mile river channel a superfund site in 1992. The dam was removed in 2008 and remediation of three million cubic yards of toxic soil began. Eight years later, restoration of the site is complete and Kustudia hopes that the park can serve as a sort of outdoor museum, capable of documenting these seismic shifts in Montana’s economy and environmental standards.

But this superfund-site-turned-tourist-destination offers more than a history lesson of where Montana has been; it’s also a sign of where Montana is going. Today, earnings from non-resident travel amount to 13 percent of the state’s economy, a larger share than mining and logging combined, which constitute 3 percent and 7 percent respectively. In a state with one million people, outdoor recreation generates a whopping $5.8 billion in consumer spending annually.

 A view of Milltown State Park Gabriel FurshongNine years ago these verdant shores were buried in toxic mine tailings, piled with sunken logs,
and drowned at the foot of a massive dam.

These numbers match a trend in other Western states, where outdoor recreation is increasingly recognized as a significant economic contributor. Utah and Colorado governors, Richard Herbert and John Hickenlooper, have sought to capitalize on this trend by establishing outdoor recreation offices designed to lure tourism and gear companies to their states. Montana Governor Steve Bullock recently announced his intention to do the same, betting that the appetite for outdoor recreation here will continue to increase in the future.

The odds are in his favor, says Norma Nickerson, a research professor at the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. “We’re hiring an economist to look at these [outdoor recreation] numbers and just the fact that we’re doing that should be an indicator of the importance of this sector,” she explains.

Nickerson points out that the impact of outdoor recreation isn’t confined to spending by non-resident tourists — short visits can also translate into long-term investments. “People want to live here, we hear that on our surveys all the time,” she says. “The reason is they love what Montana has to offer — the open space and the mountains and forests.”

However, despite widespread interest from researchers, entrepreneurs, and some lawmakers, outdoor recreation and open space have tended to receive a rather cold reception from a majority of Montana’s state legislators. During the state’s last legislative session, Republican lawmakers passed a prohibition on new land purchases through Habitat Montana, an acquisition and easement program that has been used to protect wildlife habitat and expand recreational access since it was created in 1987. Legislators also chose to ignore a $23 million maintenance backlog at the state’s 55 parks, an amount more than twice as large as the $9 million state parks budget.

This austere approach to parks funding contrasts sharply with visitation data. According to State Parks board member, Mary Sexton, nearly two-and-a-half million people visited state parks in 2015, representing an increase of 32 percent over the last five years. “But we’ve had no increase in operating budget,” she explains. “We’ve increased our fees as high as we can go, and we’re still behind the eight ball, so we need more support from the state legislature.”

With visitation expected to increase again this year, park manager Kustudia agrees that funding has not been commiserate with public use of Montana parks. Nevertheless, he’s looking to the future and doing his best to help a brand new park meet its potential.

“The vision is for trails and connectivity, a place to come have fun,” he says, while striding along a new section of trail, winding down from the bluff. The trail concludes at the river’s edge in roughly the spot where Milltown dam stood just eight years ago. Kustudia hopes to see a footbridge here in years to come.

“It’s a place to learn about the past,” he says, “where you could come, say, half a dozen times a summer and learn something new every time.”

Gabriel Furshong
Gabriel Furshong writes from Missoula, Montana. His work has appeared in High Country News, In These Times, the Cossack Review and elsewhere. He is deputy director for the Montana Wilderness Association. Views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @gfurshong

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