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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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I enjoyed reading this article. I’m a big fan of the Earth Island Journal and have supported many Earth Island Institute projects over the years, and even have worked as a contractor for one Earth Island Institute project.

But I can’t get beyond the fact that this piece is written by a guy who has spend the past 10 years trying his hardest to have politicians in Washington D.C. mandate huge increases in public lands logging throughout Montana.

The fact of the matter is that Gabriel Furshong and his Montana Wilderness Association have partnered up with the Montana timber industry to get behind a very dangerous and (negative) precedent-setting piece of legislation called the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA).

That bill calls for politicians to simply mandate huge increases in public lands logging on various National Forests in Montana, including within critical habitat for bull trout, grizzly bears, lynx and other threatened and endangered species.

One early version of the bill – which Furshong and the Montana Wilderness Association supported fully – even would have required the U.S. Forest Service to complete the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental review within 12 months, no matter the impacts on wildlife, watersheds, soils or budget constraints of the U.S. Forest Service.

In fact, at the time, Harris Sherman, Under Secretary of Natural Resources and Environment, in official testimony before the US Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee had this to say about the bill that Furshong and the Montana Wilderness Association were supporting:

“The levels of mechanical treatment that are called for in S1470 are likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable…If the Committee decides to go forward with a bill, we would urge you to first, alter or remove the highly specific timber supply requirements, which in our view are not reasonable or achievable. Secondly, we’d like to urge you to amend the National Environmental Policy Act related provisions, which in our view are flawed and are legally vulnerable. Thirdly, we would urge you to consider the budgetary implications to meet the bill’s requirements. If we were to go forward with S1470 it would require far greater resources to do that and it will require us to draw these monies from forests within Region One or from other Regions….My concern [with FJRA] is that there will be somewhat of a balkanization that occurs between the different Forest Service regions in the country. Those [National Forests] who are first in may get funded and those who come later may find there are less funds available. There will be certain ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ that result from this process. Then in someways there is no longer a national review, an effort to sift out what priorities ought to exist across the country.”

And when it comes to mining, Gabriel Furshong and the Montana Wilderness Association are no better. Heck, they have partnered together with the same mining corporation that wants to build a mine under the protected Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in Montana. Documentation shows that the mine could dewater some of the streams in that area for over 1000 years and that the mine could jeopardize threatened fish and wildlife that find refuge in the region. To date, as incredible as it may seem, Gabriel Furshong in his position as Deputy Director of the Montana Wilderness Association have not taken a position on this Wilderness mine, offering the public no comment and instead claimed “We’re waiting for the final documents to come out.”

So, hate to say it Earth Island Journal fans, but when Gabriel Furshong says there’s a ‘shift from an extraction economy to a recreation-based economy (or better yet a ‘restoration-based economy’) folks need to understand that Furshong is partnering with the timber industry to dramatically increase public lands logging, including within native forests and critical wildlife habitat, for his day job. Thanks.

By Matthew Koehler on Wed, August 31, 2016 at 12:37 pm

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