While not of the gun-slinging Wild West lore, there is a battle being waged in Montana. The future of the Smith River and the health of the surrounding water quality and habitat is at stake. If Montanans lose, the casualty will be the natural resources that set Montana apart.
In April, Montana green-lighted construction of the Black Butte copper mine north of White Sulphur Springs. This location is troublesome as it is adjacent to and directly underneath Sheep Creek, the most important tributary for the Smith.
Construction and mining will drag over multiple years, but it will immediately impact the fragile freshwater habitat and potentially degrade the resource for generations. Even with modern mining techniques, including the disposal of contaminated water and waste rock in lined storage facilities, it is impossible to guarantee zero effects to the ecosystem, especially because the mine is proposed in sulfide minerals, which often lead to acid mine drainage.
In keeping with a pattern of environmental decisions in the West, risks around permanent environmental (and economic) destruction are being minimized to the perceived financial gains that come in the first years of a project.
The Smith River runs 125 miles from White Sulphur Springs, eventually spilling into the Missouri River near Ulm. The river is unique in many ways: it requires a permit to float, has limited points of entry and exit, and boasts a scenic diversity unmatched by any river in the state and, arguably, the country.
Thousands enjoy the Smith River each year, relying on small campsites along the banks during multi-day visits, adjacent to world-class fly-fishing. The river is full of brown and rainbow trout and supports a diverse ecosystem of animals and plants. I’ve had the good fortune to float the Smith on several occasions, and I’ll cherish those memories forever.
The economic benefits from recreation on an intact Smith River ecosystem is estimated by American Rivers to be $10 million in annual income to outfitters and surrounding communities.
The financial impact is far greater when considering the longevity and durability of earnings from that stream (the Smith is a forever asset) and the money multiplier effect those dollars have over extended periods of time, not to mention the valuable, unquantifiable benefits from introducing visitors to a piece of natural beauty unrivaled in our country.
Stated bluntly, the Smith River is a competitive advantage for Montana. Anything that jeopardizes that advantage should not be taken lightly.
Unfortunately, a copper mine is not unique in the West. The “free and open” policy supported in the 1872 Mining Act ensured thousands of mines throughout the West. These small towns and communities confronted the economic fallout that comes from abandoned and environmentally compromised mines.
Supporters of the Black Butte mine development are fixated on the tangible benefits that come with any significant construction project: the creation of 240 full-time jobs, the potential for mine expansion beyond the original site, tax revenue to the state, and the promise of significant financial return well above cost of capital for investors. This constituency argues the downside case is both exaggerated and highly unlikely. These same arguments were used to push through projects such as Zortman-Landusky, Montana Tunnels, and the Beal Mountain Mine (to name a few), which all had devastating economic and environmental impacts to the state and its residents.
One can be pro-environment and pro-economic development – the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
While economic arguments are the most palpable, these multi-year forecasts are inherently flawed, underestimating the durability of the earnings stream of environmental assets. What value is given to clean water and air on visitor growth and land value in a world where these assets are shrinking across communities? What is the present value of visitation over more than 50 years?
Even if the measurable economic impact from mining and tourism is comparable, shouldn’t the earnings multiple applied to the revenue stream generated by sustainable practices, such as fishing and camping, be significantly higher than the multiple applied to revenue generated from industrial practices, many of which generate negative externalities and have a limited timespan?
Private property rights should be respected at all costs, and while the current mine plan would sit on private ranchland, the rights of the landowners in the surrounding area and down-river must also be considered.
Finally, not all mines pose such high risks. Take the Stillwater Mine near Billings, which is located in a much more favorable ore body and less likely to result in acid mine drainage.
Decisions around the Smith River provide a dangerous precedent for land and natural resource development across our country. Central Montana, and the state-at-large, need a more open, rigorous debate of these issues.
The April 2020 approval of the project in the midst of the COVID-19 national health crisis is ironic. The pandemic has reinforced issues of public health, land development, and the value of social distance. At a time when open space and domestic natural resources should be protected, the development of the Smith River risks the longevity of Montana’s global competitive advantage and is a disservice to the residents and communities that rely on the financial and recreational support the river provides.
William S. Broadbent Sr., is co-owner of the Double Cross Land and Cattle Company, LLC, in central Montana.