On December 16, 2011, I was one of a couple hundred history-conscious Missoulians who walked onto a snow-covered bluff above the Milltown Dam abutment to see something you almost never get to see: a river tangibly restored. Below us, the Clark Fork began to spill down its reconstructed stream bed, joining the also-undamned Blackfoot River in free flow for the first time since the dam was built in 1908.
This excerpt from Brad Tyer’s book Opportunity, Montana resonated with me not only because I have a huge interest in natural systems, as a student majoring Resource Conservation, but also because I too was one of those few history-conscious Missoulians who watched awestruck as our Clark Fork River took the biggest step on its journey to regain its former pristine beauty.
One of the main reasons Brad Tyer told us he wrote his book was to get out an untold story. At the time everyone knew about the Milltown Dam removal, but nobody wanted to hear about the small community upstream, the citizens of which were essentially being gifted with Missoula’s problems. I remember how bad the water was even down here for a while after they took out the dam; we couldn't even take our yellow lab Sunny swimming at Bark Park for two years afterwards. If it was that bad down here, how bad must it have been up in Opportunity, where all the toxic sediments were relocated?
Brad also went up to Opportunity to talk to the people there, and as it turns out only a vocal minority of the community is actually outraged by what happened to them, most people don’t care. The EPA did a bunch of testing and concluded that the homes of Opportunity, surrounded on all sides by Superfund sites and heavy industrial waste, were clean, the “supposedly exempt doughnut hole at the eye of the superfund storm.” And that's enough for most of the people there…
As a native Missoulian who’s lived here all my life, I can soundly say that the takeout restored the Clark Fork beautifully, and by my estimate was well worth the price Missoula paid for it. But learning about the plight of the not-so-appropriately named Opportunity leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, as if the clean-up work is not even close to being done, and surely it isn't; we’ve just moved the job onto others.
Author Bio: Fisher Johnson lives in Missoula Montana, where he was born and where he grew up. He has spent all his life enjoying the plentiful rivers, lakes, and mountain trails of Montana.
Professor Robert Stubblefield uses The Write Question as a teaching tool in his class Montana Writers Live! at the University of Montana. Fisher Johnson wrote this response to Opportunity, Montana for that class.