After finishing a five-day backpacking trip in Montana’s Snowcrest Mountains, the Wild Rockies Field Institute students (myself included) and instructors ventured out of the wilderness and coolness of the mountains to the hot, dry valleys of Butte, Montana. While in the midst of a historic heat wave, a sign that climate change is affecting local weather patterns, raged in the valleys below, the mountains remained cool and perfect hiking conditions. But we were still not safe from the effects of climate change. Dead whitebark pine covered hillsides with their white skeletons. Pika, a rabbit-like species that lives in the rocky slopes, were hard to find in their historic habitat range. We spent time looking at examples of climate change and when we left the mountain peaks, we focused on the effects closer to home, closer to people. With temperatures over a hundred degrees, the city of Butte seemed to be lost in a haze, but one thing stood out to us: the nation’s largest superfund site, that features an open mine and a pit filled with toxic waste from past mining. A harsh reality, for a group of people coming out of a wilderness area, but a reminder of why we value such places and how critical restoration work can be.
For the last two weeks, we learned about the ideas of restoration and got to visit a few project sites. The city of Butte was one of them, where we met with Abby from the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, who showed us around the city’s Superfund site. Otherwise known as “the richest hill on Earth,” Butte used to be the largest city between Chicago and Seattle back in its heyday. Miners flooded in from European countries as the west was undergoing its transformation in the 1800s. Mining reigned supreme in this town and, similar to the railroad companies, several mining companies competed for control of the copper, zinc, silver, and even gold resources that seemed to be abundant in the hills. In the wake of all this mineral extraction, toxic tailings, laced with heavy metals, were floated downstream because the “solution to pollution [was] dilution,” back in the day. Abby mentioned that like most natural resources management’s past mistakes, they just didn’t know any better. Sending down the pollutants downstream seemed to be a good idea at the time for the people upstream, but it did not help the local ecosystem or the health of the people who lived downstream. Nowadays we know the damages done, and are moving forward to work towards a solution to right the wrong of this environmental destruction.
The Silver Bow Creek runs down from the mountains, skirts around the open pit mine, as well as the Berkeley Pit, which is a mile wide and over 1,700 feet deep. The Berkeley Pit has filled with water, with a pH of 2.3, which nothing, except for rare bacteria, can live in. The Silver Bow has been subjected to a large restoration effort done by the Superfund contractors. While this has been going on, the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program has promoted student involvement and education about this process. Students of all ages and backgrounds can learn about why the river is how it is and what is being done to change it. Abby, a Butte native, remembers that she didn’t know she grew up in a Superfund site until much later in her life. Her story is a reminder that being aware of our own personal landscapes is something that we often overlook when it comes to restoration. For awareness of one’s landscape and the relationships that make up an ecosystem, is an important step in understanding how everything coexists, or doesn’t, and how restoration can change our landscape once again.
It takes passion to continue patiently along the path of restoration, especially when tailings unexpectedly keep appearing and setting back the river’s health. Or when the community has mixed feelings about the restoration work in general. Past failings in restoration, as well as a strong history of mining, has some people in Butte thinking that mining is something worth celebrating and repeating again. While on the flipside, others are hopeful that one day the toxic pit looming upstream will no longer threaten their homes and families. Hope is a powerful emotion, but so is guilt. While studying restoration, we have talked about how the past interactions between humans and nature also play a role in continuing ecosystem harm. We didn’t know any better back then, who’s to say we know better now? Being comfortable in a society with a history of environmental degradation doesn’t make it any easier either. If we have already committed these wrongdoings to the environment in the past, who’s to say we can’t or shouldn’t continue? Guilt is not enough motivation to make things right. If humans have been altering ecosystems since the beginning of human time on this planet, why should we stop now? Is there really any hope for change?
Abby told us about a poster that inspired her during her school days. It said, “don’t jump ship, be a scientist,” a message of persistence and of hope. We do need scientists to help lead the way with scientific backing and disciplines, but we also need communities of people with all different talents, areas of expertise, and hope for the future, because we all have a giant pit of poisonous water looming over our communities. Our pits are called climate change. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and even scared, but we all need to team together, and take it step by step, year by year, and not lose sight of the end goal, just like a restoration project. And like the beginning of restoration projects, we have to start somewhere and hope that what we are doing will change the future for generations to come. We have to hope.