At the confluence, Milltown State Park opens its gates to a new chapter

The Blackfoot River, flowing from left, joins the Clark Fork River at the newly christened Milltown State Park in Missoula. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The confluence of countless hours of dedication by individuals, groups and governments converged Saturday with the official opening of Milltown State Park.

Celebrated at a rainy gathering at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers, the park’s opening marked 20 years – more, really – of effort to first remove the aging Milltown Dam and then restore its former reservoir.

The grand opening dedication began and ended with songs by the Salish drum group, the Yamncut Singers. There were speeches made by leaders of the Missoula County commissioners, Montana Department of Natural Resources, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Participants could plant a tree with the Montana Native Plant Society, learn more about falcons and bull trout recovery, and enjoy the restored scenery of the rivers’ wide and free-running confluence.

“To be successful in anything, you have to have a lot of people, a lot of partners on the same page,” said Tony Incashola, director of the Selis QlispeCulture Committee. “To create something like this, it took a lot of people, it took a lot of discussion, it took a lot of commitment. But you can see the fine results of all of that.”

The area, once used for grazing and camping, holds thousands of years worth of history of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes. The place name for the area is Nayccstm, or The Place of the Big Bull Trout.

“You have to have a past, you have to have a history, in order to have a now and a future,” Incashola said. “You have to create something to build on, and our ancestors gave us that. Gave us that past, gave us that history.”

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who has been involved in the cleanup, reclamation and restoration of the dam and reservoir for the past 17 years, spoke about her work with three different governors and other organizations to help get the park to where it is today.

Curtiss highlighted the work of the late Montana Gov. Judy Martz, who endorsed removal of the dam, and former county commissioner Barbara Evans, who lobbied for the removal and restoration near and far.

“It takes a lot to get us here today. You can see there is a lot of potential,” Curtiss said.

Jeff Welch, a Montana State Parks and Recreation Board member, encouraged the audience to get involved in state parks. Millions of dollars in community contributions and Montana State Parks Foundation funding helped add Milltown to the list of Missoula County’s state parks.

“If you care about parks, get involved in the foundations, speak up for more and better parks,” he said. “There are other places that need something like this. Donate your time, your money, whatever you can. That’s how Montana is going to get more parks like this one, a park system that is worthy of our world class outdoors.”

The confluence park offers trails, an interpretive plaza and river access. Recreational opportunities like hiking, biking and fishing are abundant.

Revegetation work and construction of the interpretive plazas is ongoing, Milltown State Park manager Michael Kustudia said.

Residents who attended the grand opening on Saturday planted native trees at the Milltown State Park with the Montana Native Plant Society. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

In its previous visage as a hydroelectric dam and reservoir, the Milltown State Park was the first Superfund site in Montana. The area saw industrial development in the late 1800s when construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad led the way to construction of the Milltown Dam, first known as the Clark’s Dam.

Montana’s U.S. senator and renowned copper king William A. Clark began the construction of the Clark’s Dam and Power Plant in 1905, intending to create enough energy for the entire western portion of the state.

When it was finished in 1908, heavy rains led to record river flows and the dam’s near destruction. The resulting glut of sediments behind the dam – washed downstream from mines and smelters in Butte and Anaconda – created what eventually was designated as the Milltown Reservoir Sediments Superfund site.

The flood was the biggest in Montana history, and two times that of recent floods in the Missoula Valley, Kustudia said. It left more than 6.6 million cubic yards of waste heavy with metals and arsenic.

After the flood poisoned Milltown’s aquifer, the Environmental Protection Agency began the process that ultimately led to removal of the dam and the contaminated sediments in 2006. Floodplain and river channel construction was completed in 2012.

Now, after 20 years of cleanup efforts and restoration, the Milltown State Park continues to grow, allowing residents to stop and appreciate the confluence area as a place with a long and arduous history.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Martha Williams closed the dedication by thanking many of the contributors for their work, apologizing for not having the ability to thank all of them.

“As I hope you come back here for many years to come, when you come back, think about thoughts of confluence, and coming full circle,” she said. “As you come out and enjoy the river and look for the bull trout, think about what it took to put this together.”

The Yamncut Singers provide a closing drum song at Saturday’s grand opening o Milltown State Park in Missoula. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)