Click the regions below for more detail.
The Clark Fork begins at the confluence of Silver Bow and Warm Springs Creeks just west of Butte, Montana, and ultimately spills into Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. As it flows northwest, it collects storied waters like the world-renowned Rock Creek, the Big Blackfoot River, the Flathead River drainage, and many more.
Our projects, campaigns and outreach take us across the entire Clark Fork watershed, from its headwaters in the Upper Clark Fork to the Blackfoot and Bitterroot drainages and from Missoula to the Nine Mile Valley and the Lower Clark Fork.
Learn more about issues and opportunities across the watershed by selecting a region of interest.
The Flathead subbasin is one of the most remarkable river systems in Montana, boasting Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the West, as well as the wild and wonderful South, North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River. It also sustains large agricultural operations and some of the fastest growing communities in Montana. Read about our projects in the Flathead.MORE >
Much of the Flathead River drainage originates in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 2 million-acre area in Western Montana, and many of the creeks and streams are some of the most pristine waterways in the West. Meanwhile, Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake on the western side of the Mississippi River, and portions of the South Fork, Middle Fork and lower Flathead River are designated as federal Wild & Scenic Rivers. In its lower reaches, the Flathead flows through the reservation of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, who have dedicated time, resources and money to restoration projects on key tributaries as well as watershed education and learning efforts. Today, this storied subbasin faces challenges from invasive aquatic species, in particular lake trout and Eurasian milfoil, which outcompete native species and thrive in warmer water.
The Flathead River drainage is one of the West’s great jewels, and wilderness designations ensure that much of this pristine basin remains protected for the long-term. Ongoing efforts are underway in order to put similar long-term protections into place on the North Fork, specifically via a cross-border agreement between the United States and Canada as well as through landmark federal legislation.
Meanwhile, conservation groups, state agencies, and recreation-based organizations continue to work together to combat the uptick in aquatic invasive species in the Flathead drainage. At CFC, we’re helping to produce educational materials and promote the ‘Inspect, Clean, Dry’ ethos via our outreach and communications channels.
The North Fork Watershed Protection Act is a bipartisan bill aimed at protecting clean water, recreational values, and traditional uses in the North Fork of the Flathead drainage. The bill would protect 430,000 acres from energy development, and follows a cross-border agreement signed by the United States and Canada in 2010 that also protects the trans-boundary area from energy development. The bill originated from former Montana Senator Max Baucus, and in 2014 it was sent back to the U.S. Senate for final approval.
Locally, Flathead-based watershed groups and state agencies have had marked success in efforts to monitor for invasive species and eradicate the non-natives that have potential to cause ecological and economic harm to the watershed. In 2010, the Flathead-based Aquatic Invasive Work Group released the Flathead Basin Aquatic Invasive Species Strategic Prevention plan to prevent the dispersal of aquatic invasive into, within, and out of the Flathead Basin through early detection and assessment of newly established invaders, monitoring of invading populations, and public outreach and education programs.
Upper Clark Fork
At the heart of Montana’s gold-rush mining boom, the Upper Clark Fork fueled the growth of the state, but paid a heavy price in pollution and widespread mine waste. Today it’s the center of one of the most remarkable restoration stories in the world – a rare second chance for a hard-working river. Read about our work in the Upper Clark Fork.MORE >
Mining and smelting operations at the headwaters of the Clark Fork delivered copper for electricity to the United States for over a century. Long before environmental laws were in place, a massive flood in 1908 washed millions of tons of contaminated sediment downstream and deposited metals in the floodplain for over 120 river miles. The contamination impacted drinking water wells and agricultural soils, and today the river functions at only 1/5 of its fishery potential.
Compounding the problem, the upper river faces additional challenges from drought, sediment loads, and dewatering. CFC has identified eight tributary streams along the first 43 miles of the river that are in dire need of restoration efforts and enhanced streamflows.
The Superfund cleanup in the Upper Clark Fork began in 2012 at the trestle area in Deer Lodge. In 2013, state agencies also completed Phase 1 of the Superfund project, removing 330,000 cubic yards of mine waste from 1.5 miles of Clark Fork floodplain just south of Warm Springs Ponds. Next, DEQ is turning its attention to Phases 5 & 6, which covers approximately 4.5 miles of the Clark Fork River on the CFC-managed working ranch, Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch.
CFC purchased DCCR in 2005 with the help of two conservation partners in order to see and understand first-hand how the Superfund cleanup would impact a working cattle operation. DCCR is the first private ranch in the Upper Clark Fork Valley to undergo cleanup and restoration, and CFC is working to set a positive precedent for cleanup that includes minimal disruption to our working cattle operation, no loss of income for the ranch, and a cleanup and restoration that sticks.
The work at Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch will be similar to the cleanup work conducted as part of Phase 1. Contractors will remove contaminated sediments from the floodplain and riverbanks, backfill with clean river sediment, and plant thousands of new riparian trees and shrubs. Agency project managers anticipate that cleanup at Phases 5 & 6 will be complete in approximately two years.
Operating under the belief that a river system is only as healthy as its tributaries, CFC project managers work to augment and enhance the mainstem Superfund cleanup with integrated tributary restoration projects. We negotiate water leases and work to find innovative ways to conserve irrigation water to help put more water back in dry or disconnected creeks. We also implement channel stabilization and riparian habitat improvement projects and work to improve fish passage by installing fish screens and re-designing irrigation diversions or culverts in partnership with landowners.
Over the past decade, CFC has designed, facilitated and implemented dozens of riparian improvement projects in the Upper Clark Fork, including stream channel reconstruction, riparian habitat improvements, fish passage barrier removal, riparian plantings and streamflow enhancement projects. To date, our projects have resulted in improvements to nearly 50 miles of streams and have added nearly 90 cubic feet of water per second to the Upper Clark Fork system. We also work closely with the state of Montana Natural Resource Damage Program, which has launched an ambitious $20 million flow restoration program in the basin. Meanwhile, we supply technical input and implementation oversight to the Upper Clark Fork Superfund cleanup in our dual role as advisor and landowner, and connect adults and young people to experiential learning activities and volunteer projects at Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch.
Fed by miles of creeks and streams tumbling from wilderness peaks, the Bitterroot River is a draw for thousands of anglers and tourists each year. Dewatering and over-allocation of water supplies have taken a toll on one of our state’s most popular river systems, but exciting work is underway to keep the Bitterroot cool, clear and flowing. Read about our projects in the Bitterroot.MORE >
The Bitterroot River and its tributaries provide water for irrigation and recreation as well as fish and wildlife. The river is a foremost trout fishing destination in western Montana, but the system is not as healthy as it could be. Namely, dewatering coupled with drought and years of decreased snowpack can translate into dangerously low flows by late summer in many years. In addition, 38 streams in the watershed are considered to be “impaired” for sediment and temperature by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality as a result of riparian vegetation removal, sediment input from roads, and dewatering.
The Coalition recently launched a stream restoration effort in the Bitterroot that is focused on adding water to thirsty creeks, reducing sediment impacts, restoring riparian vegetation, adding shade and improving fish habitat. We work in partnership with local watershed groups and irrigation districts to leverage resources in collaborative restoration and monitoring projects.
We work with landowners and water users to find innovative ways to conserve water and devise more efficient irrigation practices, and also work in partnership with public lands managers to assess watershed health and implement restoration projects in key headwaters areas on public lands.
In total, restoration projects in the Bitterroot are poised to return nearly 30 cubic feet of water per second to the system, remove 46 fish passage barriers, and improve 70 miles of road over the next five-10 years.
In particular, the Lost Horse Creek siphon project, which was completed in 2015, returns 10 cubic feet of water per second to the Upper Bitterroot River. Instead of perennially running dry in its last half-mile, Lost Horse is now reunited with the Bitterroot, bull trout and western cutthroat trout are able to migrate up the creek, and water temperature and quality will vastly improve as more water reaches the river.
Middle Clark Fork
The stretch of the Clark Fork from Missoula to the Flathead confluence offers incredible recreational benefits. CFC is working in the Nine Mile Valley, the largest drainage in the Middle Clark Fork, to ensure the main-stem river is infused with cold, clean water when it’s needed most. Read more about our work in the Middle Clark Fork.MORE >
The Middle Clark Fork extends from the Clark Fork-Blackfoot confluence near Missoula to the Clark Fork’s confluence with the Flathead River. This expansive, 105-mile stretch of river includes Class IV whitewater in the Alberton Gorge as well as a variety of fishing and hunting opportunities in high mountain drainages.
In the urban stretch of Missoula, the Clark Fork is decidedly an urban river on the rebound. Milltown Dam has been removed, and the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers has been reconnected and restored. The Clark Fork River has served as the backbone of Missoula’s industry and growth — and now the river also provides abundant economic, recreational and cultural resources to one of the most popular towns in the West. It’s obvious to any visitor that a big part of what makes Missoula so unique is the Clark Fork — the town boasts river trails, river festivals, river runs and river markets, and depends on clean water to support a growing tourist industry and thriving business community.
The long-term health of our watershed, however, hinges on the actions of those who will live in, learn from and use these restored rivers and landscapes. The Coalition believes that to ensure the best possible future for a restored and resilient watershed, we must continue to engage residents in Missoula and the entire Middle Clark Fork and connect people with opportunities to learn from and help the river that supports our future and livelihoods.
In Missoula, CFC works to expand and enhance our educational and outreach programming and engage thousands of local youth and adults in the vital work of building and sustaining a healthier Clark Fork basin. Although the urban stretch of river has come a long way, the Missoula community still faces challenges to river health in the form of increased erosion, trash and invasive weeds. We engage thousands of volunteers each year in active projects including large-scale river cleanups, snowpack monitoring, river trail restoration projects, tree-wrapping and training sessions. We also connect hundreds of adults and young people to learning opportunities via formal K-12 curricula, interactive workshops, floats and events.
Beyond the urban center of Missoula, several of the Middle Clark Fork’s key tributaries — which originate and flow through public lands or former industrial timber lands — are not functioning at their full potentials. Many local watershed groups, local county governments and conservation organizations are working together to restore streams via culvert removal, road decommissioning, water conservation projects and large-scale habitat improvement projects.
Specifically, a history of mining has impaired water quality, caused severe streambank erosion, and denuded fish habitat in the Ninemile River drainage, the largest watershed in the Middle Clark Fork. Fortunately, state and federal agencies, county governments, conservation groups and landowners are working together to remove mining wastes and reconnect streams to the mainstem Ninemile Creek.
CFC plays a part in restoration efforts on Ninemile via management of three water lease projects, spaced from the top to the bottom of the drainage. The influx of clean, cold water into the system supports and sustains the future of this critical watershed as ongoing, partner-led projects provide much needed fixes to a legacy of pollution problems. We monitor the sites on the Nine Mile twice-monthly during the field season and record flow, temperature, and water depth at designated points in the stream.
In Missoula, volunteers routinely remove over 10 tons of trash from the waterway each year via CFC-sponsored cleanups. Our dedicated corps of river stewards have eradicated thousands of noxious weeds and helped local agencies to assess stream health along the urban waterway. And our watershed learning programming connects more than 300 K-12 students with interactive educational opportunities year-round.
Many restoration efforts are underway in the Ninemile. By 2012, approximately 1.1 million dollars had been either secured or spent toward restoration in the drainage. The majority of funding for the reclamation and restoration projects came from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Reclamation and Development Grants Program, and the money was in turn spent almost entirely in the private sector. Efforts were made to hire local contractors, the majority of which were based in or around Missoula County.
Meanwhile, the CFC-managed water lease on the Nine Mile mainstem continues to add cold, clean water to the lower reach of the creek (classified as periodically dewatered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks) from July to September, while leases in the upper reaches of the drainage keep small feeder creeks running cold and providing key refugia habitat for native western cutthroat trout and bull trout.
Lower Clark Fork
The Clark Fork nearly doubles in volume after its confluence with the Flathead River. En route to its endpoint at Lake Pend Oreille, it collects water from creeks and streams that provide critical habitat for the threatened native bull trout, Montana’s state fish. Read about our work in the Lower Clark Fork.MORE >
After its confluence with the Flathead River, the Clark Fork nearly doubles in volume. Fish, birds and wildlife abound in this wide, expansive stretch of river. Watershed groups and conservation districts are working to restore the biological integrity of the lower river system, reconnect tributaries to the mainstem river, and enhance water quality through a variety of stream restoration and road decommissioning projects. Many lower Clark Fork tributaries are listed as critical habitat for bull trout and function as strongholds for this iconic native trout species.
Meanwhile, the threat of new mines remains present in the lower Clark Fork. The proposed Rock Creek Mine would tunnel beneath three miles of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in the cedar-hemlock Rock Creek drainage, while the proposed Montanore Mine would also tunnel beneath the Cabinets, but on the other side of the wilderness area.
In 2003, regulators granted initial permits for the Rock Creek Mine, which would become the first mine to be permitted beneath a wilderness area. However, since this initial permitting was granted, legal challenges have delayed mine development and construction for over a decade. CFC and its partners continue to monitor progress and utilize legal means when necessary to ensure that the mining proposal does not pose unacceptable risks to the basin’s waterways.
A variety of stakeholders, watershed groups and conservation districts are working together to produce a water quality restoration plan for the Lower Clark Fork, helping to prioritize subsequent restoration decisions and projects. CFC helps publicize and support these efforts as part of our work to make the entire Clark Fork basin clean, healthy and whole.
For over a decade, CFC has been actively engaged in legal challenges to the Rock Creek Mine. Today, although Rock Creek Mine still faces permitting delays at the federal level, the company and the U.S. Forest Service continue their work on a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, including groundwater modeling, which is expected for release in October 2014. We continue to keep tabs on the proposed Rock Creek and Montanore mines.
Clark Fork / Blackfoot Confluence
For 100 years, Milltown Dam blocked the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers near Missoula, impounding toxic sediments and indirectly causing the contamination of local drinking wells. Now, the dam is out, mining wastes have been removed, and two mighty rivers are flowing free once more. Read more about our role restoring the confluence.MORE >
Visit the Friends of Two Rivers website for the multimedia story of a restored confluence.
In one of the more impressive collaborative restoration efforts in the watershed, Milltown Dam — and the toxic accumulation of mining waste behind it — has been removed, and the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers are flowing free once more at their natural confluence just west of Missoula. Today, the former dam and reservoir area is restored to a wide floodplain with a naturally meandering river, and is one of the few Superfund sites in the country to become a state park.
Legal hurdles in regards to access have delayed development of Milltown State Park since the stream restoration work wrapped up in 2012. Although the park remains closed to public access, the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers are open for floating, fishing and recreation. Parks managers request that recreationists keep off the riverbanks at the newly restored confluence in order to avoid damaging the new plants.
For 100 years, the dam plugged the river just eight miles upstream of Missoula. The 540-acre reservoir behind Milltown Dam contained 6.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment, which washed down from Butte’s copper mines during the record flood of 1908 and stacked up behind the dam. The contamination poisoned local wells with arsenic, and killed off fish and other aquatic life in the river during high flows and ice jams.
The Coalition worked persistently since 2000 to transform dam removal and sediment cleanup into a thinkable, viable option that was eventually endorsed by the EPA, the state of Montana, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, state legislators, local governments, and thousands of citizens and businesses in the communities near the former Milltown Reservoir.
For so long, the idea to remove Milltown Dam was “far-fetched and ridiculous.” At the Coalition, we take particular pride in the role we played to activate thousands of people to support full dam removal and restoration. Our supporters wrote letters, contacted elected officials, spoke up at public meetings and donated time and money to support our campaign to “Remove the Dam – Restore the River.”
The removal of 6.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment at Milltown permanently removed a threat to human health. Meanwhile, dam removal and restoration returned a historic river confluence to its natural state and reunited the Middle and Upper Clark Fork watersheds.
For the first time in 100 years, fish can migrate unimpeded from the Middle Clark Fork to natal spawning streams in the Blackfoot, Rock Creek and upper Clark Fork. Reconnecting the river at this scale has tremendous benefits for fish — especially our native trout species that depend on cold, clean and connected water to survive.
The newly restored confluence offers tremendous recreational benefit for nearby residents and tourists. Now, anglers, paddlers and boaters can put on the Blackfoot River and float through the confluence to its meeting point with the Clark Fork, then head downstream and enjoy a scenic urban float through Hellgate Canyon and downtown Missoula. Development at Milltown State Park is underway, and the future park will include walking trails, signage, walk-in fishing access, picnic shelters and much more. The Clark Fork-Blackfoot confluence is one of the only former Superfund sites in the country to become a state park.
If ever “a river ran through it,” it’s the Big Blackfoot River — the stuff of Montana legend that easily lives up to its fame. Over the past several decades, it’s taken some hard knocks, but collaborative community partnerships have healed past wounds and staved off new threats, helping this fabled river keep its status as one of the best. Read about our projects in the Blackfoot.MORE >
The origins of the Big Blackfoot River lay in small creeks and streams on the west side of the Continental Divide near Lincoln, Montana. Today, the river and its tributaries provide premier trout fishing and hunting destinations, and the watershed today still boasts the full complement of wildlife as it existed prior to European settlement.
Yet like elsewhere, mines have left an indelible impact in the Blackfoot watershed. In the 1940s, miners used metals-laced tailings to build the Mike Horse Dam at the origins of the Blackfoot River on Beartrap Creek near the Continental Divide. In 1975, the tailings dam blew out and deadly levels of lead, copper and zinc dumped into the Upper Blackfoot. The mine’s owner rebuilt the dam, but another catastrophic flood could send another round of contamination into the river. Spurred by the potential threat, CFC worked with other conservation groups and landowners to generate 8,000 public comments to the U.S. Forest Service urging removal of the dam and cleanup of mine waste. Construction is now underway to permanently remove this threat to clean water in the Blackfoot.
Mining explorations continue in the Blackfoot, but the potential threats from cyanide heap leach mining have been held at bay over the years thanks to public outcry, legislative action and the local community’s belief that the “Blackfoot is more precious than gold.”
Since our founding in 1985, the Coalition has worked to protect the best in the Clark Fork basin. Working with diverse partners, we’ve been successful at activating community members to speak and act on behalf of smart solutions to a legacy of mining in the Blackfoot. Our efforts are a testament to an effective science-based, grassroots approach.
Meanwhile, landowners, conservation groups, county governments, citizens and local, state, and federal agencies have worked collaboratively over the past several decades to bring the Blackfoot back to full health. Innovative land and water management strategies, proactive weed management, and community education and outreach have resulted in a healthier watershed and have reestablished the Blackfoot River as a top-notch destination for anglers, hunters and tourists. Over the past several decades, efforts have included enhanced natural resource management as well as development of voluntary drought response plans, walk-in hunting areas (Block Management areas), and primitive overnight camping sites now situated throughout the recreation corridor.
Thanks to public comment and heavy lifting by conservation organizations and community groups, the U.S. Forest Service decided in 2007 to implement a complete removal of Mike Horse Dam, meaning that the dam will be dismantled, mine tailings will be moved to a high and dry location, and the headwaters of the Blackfoot will be given a chance to fully heal.
In the meantime, public outcry against cyanide heap leach mines in the Blackfoot resulted in a victory in 2002 with the passing of I-137, the citizen-passed state law that prohibits new open-pit, cyanide-leach mines in Montana. CFC along with other groups has worked to defeat subsequent ballot initiatives and legislative actions that would repeal the law.
Today, the Blackfoot watershed boasts a strong fishery, healthy working lands, vibrant hunting opportunities and a robust recreation corridor enjoyed by anglers, boaters, hikers and more — and the Coalition is pleased to have played a part in the protection and restoration of this exceptional watershed.