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Designing A Greener Future For Butte's Creeks

Jeremy Grotbo, with Butte-Silver Bow County, points to a trail feature on a map of Silver Bow and Blacktail Creek corridors in Butte at the Community Design Workshop. August 7, 2018.
Nora Saks
Jeremy Grotbo, with Butte-Silver Bow County, points to a trail feature on a map of Silver Bow and Blacktail Creek corridors in Butte at the Community Design Workshop. August 7, 2018.

Under the Superfund cleanup deal currently being negotiated for Butte, most of the historic mine waste lining the Upper Silver Bow and Blacktail Creek corridors that carve through town is slated to be removed and cleaned up.

But what these big parcels of land and water will look like, feel like, and are used for after the cleanup is over - is much more open-ended.

“It’s an amazing opportunity. There’s 118 acres right at the pivotal point of your community that is open green space," said Landscape Architect Stacey Robinson, speaking to a full house of 50 people in the back room of the Butte Brewing Company at a community design workshop Tuesday afternoon.

Robinson is working with Butte-Silver Bow County, the state Department of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Atlantic Richfield company to coordinate an end land use plan, while the cleanup details are being fleshed out. And now, those parties are asking the community to be creative with them.

“We’re here to dream, but we also have to be responsible," Robinson said. "We have to take your information and design with safety and security in mind, with use and sustainability in mind, and also with operations and maintenance in mind. We don’t want to end up with a bunch of facilities that are really cool the day we cut the ribbon and after that they’re not used.”

To help participants dream big, the brewery walls were festooned with pictures and diagrams all showing the menu of amenities those creek corridors could one day contain.

Like boardwalks, community gardens, and food truck plazas. Or more run of the mill features, like parking lots, restrooms, and picnic shelters. But those were just to get the conversation started.

“It might be a cool opportunity to weave not only the mining history, but the Salish-Kootenai history and make it a really cool educational trail, but fun," said Abby Peltomaa, with the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program.

All around the room, armed with markers and stickers, a mash-up of agency staff, local officials, engineers, activists, business owners, artists and others huddled around blown up maps of the creek corridors and debated what they wanted to see there ten years down the road.

At that table, Joe Griffin, a retired hydreogeologist, made a plug for a minimalist approach.

“Less is more, in a way," Griffin said. "We have so many options there, when you’re at the site now, the trails are well used. It’s already getting a lot of use. For the most part I see it as, basically more of a natural area and maybe some signage.”

When everyone reported back to the big group even more ideas emerged.

“We put an amphitheatre down on the end, we liked that natural amphitheatre place for community gathering," one person suggested.

Another suggested linking Butte’s creek corridors to other recreational systems: “One of the first things is connectivity. Connecting this to our existing parks and trails. We talked about some pedestrian overpass. Getting over the interstate. Getting over Montana Street...we need to have safe passage, make it friendly.”

Local artist BT Livermore said for him, education and interaction are paramount.

“Maybe slightly more important than public art, in terms of a sculpture park, which would be an amazing thing to have," Livermore said. "I just think there are so many opportunities throughout the whole site for interactivity and education - whether that be history or environmental concern, education, things like that.”

After listening to the potpourri of land use visions, Julia Crain, the special projects planner with the county Superfund division, said she heard some consensus emerge. She said from a design perspective, "everybody is on the same page about it being more of a natural area. Really paying homage to the creeks that are in the area and the environment that we have here in southwest Montana and in Butte.”

But what that means is still a contentious issue in Butte.

“My problem with this whole thing is that it’s not starting in the right place," said Sister Mary Jo Macdonald, with the Restore Our Creek Coalition, a local group that’s been advocating for a free flowing Upper Silver Bow Creek for years.

This design workshop focused on parts of the creek corridors that will be undergoing Superfund cleanup, and didn’t address a section of the creek upstream, behind the Civic Center that the group would like to see restored.

Leaving that out of the planning conversation frustrated Evan Barrett, another member of the Coalition.

“The area behind the civic center, even though it’s not part of the remedy, is a very relevant issue in terms of what the community wants to see for end land use," Barrett said.

Julia Crain, the main organizer of the event, said she’ll be busy crunching all of these comments, concepts, and scribbles into data, and then conceptual designs. At the end of the month, the county will host another series of workshops to share them back with the public.

She was excited by the variety of perspectives and ideas, and for her  the signal that came through all the noise was really, "how much the community loves its home and wants to make it better for the future.”

At this time, it’s unclear which entity would be responsible for funding any end land use features that would follow the Superfund cleanup in Butte’s Upper Silver Bow and Blacktail Creek corridors.

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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