Protect the Smith River

By Pat Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

The Smith River is facing the threat of an international copper mine on Sheep Creek, an important tributary to an even more important river. PHOTOS BY MICHAEL KOWALSKI

I’m jealous of my friend’s 6-year-old daughter, and not because he cuts off her crusts or packs a chocolate mint in her school lunch each morning. I’m jealous because she’s been down the Smith River twice in her short life.

It took me 19 years before I floated this endangered river that snakes its way through public and private lands on its way to meet the Missouri River southwest of Great Falls. I was a freshman in college and it was early May in the late ‘90s. The river was running high and muddy, and in three days we caught two fish, both at the mouth of Sheep Creek.

Twenty-plus years ago, the river with a headwaters south of White Sulphur Springs was a hidden gem. Nearly a quarter-century past my first float, the Smith River is as popular as ever, but not necessarily for the best reason. It’s the battleground for a polarizing matchup of long-standing foes: the promise of sustainable mining practices versus ensuring multiple generations can experience natural wonders.

An international mining company, Tintina Resources, is in the permitting process for an underground copper mine adjacent to and underneath Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith River. Sheep Creek is often an important source of in-stream flows of clear and cold water to the main stem of the Smith. At least half of the wild trout in the Smith River drainage use Sheep Creek as spawning grounds. Clearly a healthy Sheep Creek is essential to the drainage’s high population of large and healthy trout. In fact, radio telemetry suggests trout from the Missouri River have utilized Sheep Creek.

Tintina is following all proper protocols in the permitting and public outreach process, and is working to dissuade a negative public opinion toward Montana’s past history with mining operations gone wrong. To their credit, and unlike operations in the past, Tintina is working hard to promote and utilize the most modern, least-impactful technologies and practices. Of concern is not so much Tintina and their international management team and investors; rather, it’s our necessity for resource extraction in our daily lives and working to negate those impacts as much as possible.

This doesn’t mean an internationally owned and operated mine like the proposed operation shouldn’t exist. It means if it is going to exist, as Montanans who value special resources like the Smith River, we must look at the past poor track record of mining in Montana. It’s not a good one. Our local communities, state agencies, officials, and citizens who cherish resources like the Smith River watershed must insist there will be no risk whatsoever to the water and wildlife.

Finding level ground to stand on while making one’s argument for or against the mine, or for or against the Smith River, is challenging. Very few of us are squeaky clean, and nearly all of us, myself included, play a small part in the larger whole of resource conservation. Is driving a large SUV or truck to protest a mine while drinking a latte from a paper cup sitting next to a plastic water bottle really that effective in the larger picture? Technology and its resulting innovations are helping to reduce our impact; however, the battle lines are often much closer to home than we care to admit. Changing personal habits can be much harder than sending out mass emails or sharing posts.

On my first trip down the Smith, I was 19 and my comprehension of the world was limited to where my next free beer would come from and who I’d chat up that night—would it be a blonde or brunette, or if I was really lucky, maybe a redhead. But even still, as my friend and I embarked on our first-ever Smith River trip, I knew this river was like no other place on Earth. The river, the limestone canyon, the fishing for wild trout, the hiking to petroglyphs, and the essential soul-soothing fact that a place like this still existed and was accessible to a grunged-out 19 year-old semi-granola yet semi-preppie-jock made it exceptional. Now, nearly 30 years later, it’s time for me to take my young kids down the Smith River before it’s potentially changed forever. On that trip they will learn what I’ve learned: Our small existence is part of a greater whole, and within it we have the responsibility to leave things better than we find them.

Pat Straub has been guiding the Smith River for nearly twenty years. He is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.