By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Stories that begin with gold and the promise of riches often end with a new generation facing millions of dollars in reclamation work. The story is the same up Ninemile Creek, where the discovery of placer gold in 1874 launched nearly 80 years of mining.
Tucked up a scenic Montana valley west of Missoula, the Ninemile district bears the scars of its past. The landscape is oddly conformed, pocked with slag piles and dredge ponds that, for more than half a century, have prompted erosion and increased stream temperatures.
The mining waste has also prevented bull trout and westslope cutthroat from navigating the watershed’s tributaries. Upstream migrating to historic spawning grounds has been impossible until recent years.
“It’s this whole Ninemile watershed,” said Kali Becher, a rural landscape scientist with Missoula County. “There are so many drainages in there, and it was just devastated by mining waste. But we’ve been chipping away at it.”
In 2004, Trout Unlimited, Missoula County and the Lolo National Forest launched a campaign to reclaim the Ninemile’s abandoned mining sites and restore the landscape to a more natural condition.
In hopes of continuing the effort, Missoula County commissioners recently signed and submitted a $35,000 grant application to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; funding earmarked for the McCormick Creek drainage, one of the Ninemile’s primary tributaries.
More specifically, Becher said, the grant will fund a land survey and the reclamation design for a half-mile stretch of McCormick Creek, along with 300 hundred feet of Little McCormick Creek.
“These funds are only available to local jurisdictions, such as county government, and they’ve contributed significantly to the overall effort, which helps make the work possible,” Becher said. “This has been a great partnership, with each group providing something unique to the projects.”
To date, funds from the state’s Reclamation and Development Grant have supported five restoration projects throughout the watershed, including Mattie V. Creek and Twin Creek, which had been channeled into a ditch and a dredge pond before restoration took place.
Paul Parson, the Middle Clark Fork restoration coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said Kennedy Creek was equally troubled. An abandoned hardrock mine impeded the channel and left the waterway with elevated levels of copper and zinc. The mining waste was removed during the summer of 2015 and contractors rebuilt and opened the stream in late November.
“We had fish going up and down the first day we put the stream back,” Parson said. “They’re seeking cold water. These placer mines have ponds and poor channels, and those ponds get warm and increase temperatures in the main stem. It’s about the worst condition you can have for aquatic life.”
According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the Ninemile was used as a shortcut by miners heading to the Kootenai River, which saw active mining begin in 1865. Nine years later, placer gold was discovered in Ninemile Creek.
The discovery launched a new rush that spilled into the Ninemile’s tributaries, including St. Louis and Eustache gulches. Mining camps dubbed Old Town and Montreal were soon established; two of many settled within the district, which became home to an estimated 5,000 residents.
At the peak of activity, several claims yielded $100 per man each day. But the boom subsided in 1879 and the population fell to 60 people. Drag-line dredging arrived in the 1940s but was short lived. The watershed languished for decades, until the local collaboration set out with reclamation plans in 2004.
“We have projects that were completed four or five years ago – or just one or two years ago – and you can see the progress and how everything starts coming back,” said Becher. “With the flooding, the natural stream configuration finds its way.”
Work on McCormick Creek could begin in 2016 with a site assessment and reconnaissance, during which consultants will complete a survey of the mining waste and tailing pond. They’ll also gather bank measurements and pebble counts.
Becher said the data will help produce a topographic map, providing the foundation for grading plans, channel design and a hydraulic analysis. Fish monitoring will begin this fall, with restoration work set to begin in 2017.
For county leaders, the work marks another step forward in improving the region’s watersheds. While the success of the Blackfoot Challenge and the removal of Milltown Dam on the Clark Fork River get most of the attention, the Ninemile is emerging as a quiet success story.
“Other counties do apply for this money, but we’re really competitive for this grant because we have this bigger project in mind, and we’ll chip away for a decade until we accomplish this,” said Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley. “It’s important. It’s why people want to live here, because of the natural resources we have access to.”
Parson placed restoration of the Ninemile watershed at more than 50 percent completed. He estimated the running cost at more than $5 million.
“The main stem of the Ninemile, with the placer damage, that work is expensive,” he said. “There’s about two to three miles left to do. Along with the main stem, there’s still tributaries disconnected to spawning fish, and they’re really important.”