Outfitters: Short term benefits of Smith River mine not worth the lasting impacts

In 2016, Outfitters on the Smith River wrote an op-ed expressing our concern about the proposed Smith River mine and how it could be devastating to the businesses we have built on the Smith River, and in turn our livelihoods. On April 10th, the Department of Environmental Quality released a Record of Decision (ROD) for the proposed project, giving it the green light, so we feel compelled to again speak out.

In issuing this permit, we believe state regulators are pushing aside the concerns of business owners, landowners and most of us who care about the Smith. Folks who would be directly impacted by the damage this mine could cause to Sheep Creek, the Smith River, its Blue-Ribbon trout fishery and the $10 million a year it contributes to Montana’s economy just from fishing.

Though outfitters are allotted only 75 of the total 1,300 permits given out every year, we employ dozens of guides and staff around the state. The guests we bring to Montana are coming here and spending money because of the Smith River. Last year each of us outfitters booked hundreds to thousands of hotel rooms for our clients, who also spent time in Montana eating out, shopping and contributing to our economy.

Additionally, that $10 million doesn’t even include other recreational, agricultural and tax benefits the Smith generates. These are indefinitely sustainable dollars, and they benefit real people and real jobs that would be lost if the river is degraded. Our guides, like ourselves, own homes, raise families and invest in our communities for the long haul.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has put not only our Smith River season, but our entire guiding season at risk of being lost. We are seeing firsthand what the impacts of losing the Smith River would mean to our businesses, and the people we employee all across the state. Proponents of the mine claim that the jobs it will create are what Montana’s economy needs right now. Hard rock mines like this create short-term jobs, jobs that more then likely will not be given to the folks that live in the community.

Our message over the years has not changed. We appreciate the benefits of responsible mining, but this mine is unlikely to leave the river better off. All mineral extraction has environmental risks, but in this case, the ore deposits thread through sulfide-rich rock, which produces acid and dissolved metals that would be deadly for fish in Sheep Creek and the Smith River.

We have not seen evidence to believe that this mine would avoid these problems. On the contrary, we have seen third party expert review that leads us to believe that this mine will cause long lasting impacts to the Sheep Creek and the Smith. We are deeply worried that state regulatory agencies will be unable to catch problems before they turn into disasters.

The short-term profits made from this project will go to the pockets of Sandfire’s investors in Australia, while the copper will be shipped overseas to Asia. The benefits this mine might produce for Montana pales in comparison to what we stand to lose.

Along with the privilege of working on the Smith, there is a responsibility to leave the river healthier than we found it. It is a message we preach to our guides, staff, clients and families. There is no way a large mine will leave the river healthier, so Montana should be able to just say “no”.

This fight is not over, and we will continue to support every effort to protect the Smith. The Smith River is truly one of a kind, a state treasure, and more valuable then copper.

Mike Geary, Lewis and Clark Expeditions; Joe Sowerby, Montana Fly Fishing Connection; John Herzer and Terri Raugland, Blackfoot River Outfitters; Brandon Boedecker, PRO Outfitters; Brian McGeehan, Montana Angler Fly Fishing; Denny Gignoux, Glacier Guides and Montana Raft