Geologist Jerry Zieg grew up next to the Smith River in central Montana, on the ranch his family has owned for five generations. The river irrigated their land. He learned to fish from its pristine bounty of westslope cutthroat trout. The river’s russet canyon walls, with 1,000-year-old pictographs drawn by the Besant and Avonlea peoples, were what first inspired his fascination with geology. Later, when he married his wife, the two floated the Smith for their honeymoon. “My family sold the part right on the river in the mid-Eighties, but I still have the rest of that land where I grew up on the Smith,” he says proudly.
He’s not alone in his reverence for the Smith. It is hallowed water in Montana. More than the Blackfoot, which reached mythical status in A River Runs Through It, and more than the federally protected Flathead, which makes up the borders of Glacier National Park, the Smith, which flows for 59 off-the-grid miles through the Belt Mountains, is iconic as the state’s sole permitted river; every year, thousands of Montanans and out-of-staters enter a lottery to snag a coveted spot to float and fish it.
In 2010, when a grassroots coalition called Montanans for Healthy Rivers formed to protect the veins of Montana’s heritage, the group put boots on the ground in communities all over Montana to find out which waters people thought were worthiest of preserving. “[The Smith] came up around the state,” says Kascie Herron, Northern Rockies associate director for the conservation organization American Rivers. “It’s one of those where it’s everyone’s river, even if it’s not in your backyard. The Smith is the soul of Montana.”
Which is why Zieg’s plan to install a copper mine underneath its headwaters has drawn the escalating wrath of Montanans — perhaps more than any other environmental fight in the state in the past decade.
Zieg is the senior vice president of the mining company Sandfire Resources America, and says he wouldn’t be heading the Black Butte Copper Project if he thought the mine would harm the river so pivotal to his youth. Rather, he’s been driving the effort because he believes that a sustainable-energy future requires copper: a single wind turbine can contain 4.7 tons of copper. A solar-power system requires 5.5 tons of copper per megawatt produced. And demand for copper in electric vehicles is predicted to rise 1,700 kilotons by 2027.
Most conservationists will agree that copper is necessary for the technologies that will reduce our use of fossil fuels. Most will also agree that if we’re going to unearth it, we should be pulling it from places that enjoy strict mining regulations, like Montana. Zieg says that the deposit under Sheep Creek, at the headwaters of the Smith, is a perfect example of this: It’s a rare high grade of copper that’s otherwise only been found in the environmentally lax Congo, where “it’s a bit of a dicey situation politically,” he notes dryly.
But these arguments don’t go over with environmentalists — or many Montanans — when there’s a resource like the Smith River at stake.
“When you think about what this river represents to every single Montanan, the idea of threatening this landscape and this watershed with a mine — not here and not ever,” says Land Tawney, the Missoula-based CEO of the national advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, his usually calm drawl flaring with reined-in indignation. Tawney is one of the thousands of people who, for the past 10 years, have testified against the mine, attended rallies, written letters to local papers, and donated to the environmental groups on the front lines.
“People have come from out of the woodwork” to oppose the mine, says Derf Johnson, an environmental lawyer with the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) in Helena. Johnson has been one of the leaders of the Save Our Smith campaign since the start of this fight in 2010. “And not just environmentalists, it’s the whole gamut of people who access the river. Everyone from gear heads to fly fishermen to construction workers to hedge-fund managers. It costs $10 to apply for a permit, you don’t need expensive whitewater gear or technical expertise to float it. It’s a blue-collar river.”
In April 2020, though, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for the mine. In a last-ditch effort, MEIC and a few other environmental groups have intervened on one of the final steps before Sandfire can break ground, arguing in court that the company’s acquisition of a set of water rights from upstream ranches will threaten the health of Sheep Creek and, ultimately, the Smith.
But Montana’s own government has become a little dicey lately. Helmed by a Republican governor for the first time in 16 years, Greg Gianforte (perhaps best known for body-slamming a reporter while running for Congress in 2017), the state is now entirely controlled by the GOP. And the Legislature is already pushing a host of bills that will weaken environmental protections and allow Black Butte and other mines to move forward.
There is some hope for the Smith River, though. Last fall, Montana Sen. Jon Tester — now the state’s lone Democratic official — introduced legislation that would protect a swath of the state’s rivers, including the Smith, as Wild and Scenic, the highest level of federal protection for rivers in the United States. It’s a bill that grew out of the work Montanans for Healthy Rivers started back in 2010 — a wish list from the people of Montana that would protect 336 miles on 17 rivers. “It’s a piece of legislation that basically should have no political boundaries,” Tester said when he presented the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act in October. “It’s about our kids and our grandkids.”
But it’s unlikely to be so simple. Here at the confluence of state politics and federal protections looms a key battle for Montana’s future, one that’s representative of a struggle playing out all over the West: to pursue a sustainable outdoor-recreation economy, or follow the same extraction-heavy path that’s left this landscape littered with exhausted boomtowns.
“The Smith is emblematic of that conflict, and the crossroads that Montana has arrived at politically and historically: Which way are we going to go?” says Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, another leader of Save Our Smith. “Because if we betray the Smith River in Montana, there’s nothing that’s sacred anymore.”
Everyone has a story about the Smith. Bosse met his wife on a trip down the river. Tawney’s sister pulled from it the biggest brown trout he’d ever seen, when they were children. Johnson, an avid fisherman, grew up floating the river with his family, and still floats it every chance he gets.
“I remember that trip where we woke up to three inches of snow in April,” he says. “We were breaking ice off our raft to get on the river. It was freezing. And we were so totally happy. Because you get down into that canyon, into solace and nature, and you forget the day-to-day struggles. There are so few places like this left in the Lower 48 anymore. And the threat is right there, you can see where Sheep Creek comes into the Smith from the boat launch.”
Johnson knows better than most what a copper mine at its headwaters could do to the river. MEIC and the other organizations say they found serious flaws with Sandfire’s plan. For one, the copper deposit lies below the water table, which means water will have to be continually pumped out of the mine. “Essentially, they’re taking water out of the basin, because they’re going to create a big hole under Sheep Creek that will suck water out of the river,” Johnson explains. And the Smith is already almost subject to more demands than it can deliver in irrigation rights on private ranches. “They’re proposing that they’ll buy water rights from upstream users and leave that water in the river to make up for it. But we’re talking about a complex water system with 24/7 use on it that can be hard to model. They’re trying to mitigate for something that’s impossible to mitigate for.”
The pumped wastewater from that hole under Sheep Creek is likely to contain arsenic and other toxics that could leach into Sheep, and from there, to the Smith, according to a 47-page letter to the state filed on behalf of MEIC and other litigating organizations that compiled comments from independent experts and scientists in fields from fisheries and hydrology to geochemistry and engineering. Even worse, the mining will dig into sulfide minerals, which, when exposed to air and water, form highly toxic sulfuric acid. Studies indicate that the cement-tailings paste Sandfire proposes to use to capture the acid mine drainage will break down and oxidize over time — also ultimately flowing into the Smith.
“When the chemical reaction happens to produce sulfuric acid, it’s impossible to stop,” says Johnson. “The federal government has spent hundreds of millions to find ways to stop it, with no conclusion. So we’re left with a constant source of pollution that we either need to live with or treat, that will last forever. I don’t know how else to explain it. Perpetuity, thousands of years of treating tainted water because of a chemical reaction we’ve caused. And in Montana, you can’t throw a ball without hitting an acid mine drainage site.”
The state’s landscape is visibly scarred with the still-seeping wounds from a legacy of hard-rock mines. The Berkeley Pit in Butte — a gaping hole nearly a mile and a half wide, a hideously poisoned lake of mine tailings and sulfuric acid — is only the most well-known example. It achieved national infamy in 2016 when a flock of thousands of geese landed on the surface and died instantly. The pit is left over from Butte’s heyday at the turn of the 20th century, when it was known as “the Richest Hill on Earth,” so booming with people and copper wealth that it was the biggest city between San Francisco and Chicago. Now, it’s an eerily quiet ground zero for one of the biggest Superfund sites in the country, alongside numerous other toxic mining projects in Montana that have already cost taxpayers millions to clean up after the company at fault shutters and walks away from the mess.
The only upside to that poisoned history, Tawney says, is that it spurred the people to stand up and protect the landscape from the Copper Kings, a set of Gilded Age icons who amassed enormous wealth by pillaging the earth and avoiding consequence through corrupt political machinations. Today, Montana enjoys some of the strictest mining regulations in the country, as well as a rare state constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. But all of that is on the chopping block right now in the state Legislature.
Many see Gov. Gianforte as a kind of modern-day Copper King: an inordinately wealthy businessman with an ominous anti-public-lands record, overseeing a state government where “industry and their allies in the Legislature have the keys to the kingdom,” says Johnson.
Gianforte made his fortune as a tech entrepreneur when he sold his Bozeman-based company, RightNow Technologies, to Oracle, a move that’s widely credited for Bozeman’s meteoric (some say out-of-control) growth. In response to a request for comment for this story, a representative insisted, “Governor Gianforte believes that we can responsibly develop our abundant Montana resources and simultaneously protect our environment.” But during his one term as a congressman, he sponsored two congressional bills to strip environmental protections from 700,000 acres, which would have been the biggest protected-lands rollback in Montana’s history. In 2009, he sued the state to cease public access to the East Gallatin River from an easement on his Bozeman mansion’s property. And some of his biggest campaign donors are the Texas-billionaire Wilks brothers, known for buying up land in Idaho and shutting people out from public right-of-ways, sometimes with armed guards.
Gianforte presides over a “citizen Legislature” — the state’s lawmakers meet only for four months, once every two years, so that elected officials can maintain their day jobs. It makes for something of a frenzied session, and since its start in January, Republicans have wasted no time fulfilling what they see as a mandate from the electorate on issues like abortion rights, gun laws, and environmental regulations. Already, conservationists are performing triage to fight a landslide of bills that would weaken wildlife protections, reduce limits on water pollution, and bypass environmental reviews on new development.
But those elected officials don’t have that mandate from voters, says Tawney. None of them campaigned on an anti-public-lands platform — which, in Montana, would be political suicide. Like a vast majority of voters in the West, Montanans overwhelmingly support public-lands access and protections. A 2020 poll found 79 percent of voters consider themselves conservationists, and “85 percent think public lands are good for tourism, wildlife, and what’s best about Montana.”
Regardless of such overwhelming sentiment and near-universal love for the Smith River, the Legislature is currently considering a bill that would prohibit the Montana Department of Natural Resources from evaluating water quantity and quality in issuing water rights permits — which would quash environmentalists’ legal challenge to the water rights needed for the Black Butte mine. It joins another industry-backed bill that would loosen pollution-control standards, both of which are likely to wind up on Gianforte’s desk to sign in April.
Johnson says that it’s clear that this Legislature is willing to do whatever it takes to grease the skids for mining projects in Montana. “They’ve been trying to eliminate environmental protections for mining projects for the past few decades, and this session is no exception. The difference now is that we have a governor that’s willing to sign these bills rather than veto them.
“I’m very worried we’re going to see a structural dismantling of our environmental-protection laws,” Johnson continues, “all at the request of a small group of executives looking to make more money. I don’t think Montanans voted for this. I don’t think they said, ‘Please go to Helena and reduce our environmental protections.’ But that’s what’s going to happen.”
Johnson is optimistic that the Smith can still be saved, though. “Even if this bill were to pass, that still doesn’t resolve our constitutional concerns about our right to a clean and healthy environment, which is part of our litigation,” he says.
But with the current Republican supermajority, the Legislature could move to severely weaken that constitutional right, too. There are rumblings that Republicans will put a measure on the ballot in November to amend that right to “a clean, healthful, and economically productive environment” — a small but extremely consequential modification that’s at the heart of the battle for the New West.
“Right now is when deals are being made, and who knows what’s going to happen?” Johnson says. “We’re dangerously close to seeing a rollback on our rights.”
The opposition often excoriate Sandfire Resources America for being a “foreign-owned” Australian company invading Montana soil. But Zieg, a local, has propelled the Black Butte Copper Project since its inception. While getting his master’s degree at the University of Montana, he was on the exploration team that discovered the copper deposit under Sheep Creek in 1985. He left the state for years, working as a geologist on projects in northwest Alaska for NovaGold Inc., among other companies, which he says helped shape his ethics around mining.
“We were working a good deal in the Inupiat villages, living there and hiring the people for our field programs,” he says. “The CEO was Alaskan, and it was important to him that we had a strong relationship with those communities so that they understand the positives and negatives. If they didn’t like what we were doing, they knew we would find ways to straighten that out.” (NovaGold is itself currently under pressure from 35 Alaskan tribes opposing its Donlin gold mine in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, which Alaska Public Media reports as “a major turning point in regional support for the gold prospect.”)
In 2008, Zieg got a call from the family who owned the land on top of the copper deposit he’d discovered back in 1985. They’d had more than a dozen other companies banging down their doors, he says, people they didn’t know or trust the way they trusted Zieg.
“I didn’t want to come here with an outfit that didn’t care about the community or the environment, I needed to be sure we’d do this in the right way. These are my friends, my neighbors, the land I love, the place where I live,” he says. So he created Tintina Resources, a company that embodied the kinds of standards he’d come to respect from working in Alaska.
In 2017, Australia-based Sandfire Resources acquired Tintina as part of its search, Zieg says, for international projects that fit its forward-thinking environmental track record (Sandfire’s DeGrussa project is the first mine in Australia to operate on an off-grid solar and battery system, the largest of its kind in the world). Tintina changed its name to Sandfire Resources America, and the company remains Montana-driven, says Nancy Schlepp, Sandfire Resources America’s VP of communications and a local herself, whose first job was shuttling cars at the Smith River. “Most of our team is from Montana or has moved here, and all of us live in Meagher County or within a 100-mile radius,” she says.
Zieg insists the Black Butte Copper Project’s modern practices will atone for what he calls “the sins of our mining past.” He says the carbonite rock surrounding the copper deposit helps contain the inevitable and disastrously toxic sulfuric acid. (“Think of the ore body as 30 weeks’ worth of stomach acid, and all of the rock around it as 540 weeks’ worth of Tums,” Schlepp says.) Any water coming out of the mine will be treated for chemicals beyond regulations. (“It’s drinking water at that point.”) And it will be an underground mine rather than a ghastly open pit, with such “complete protection of water and return to the land of its former use that people will be hard-pressed to see that there had been a mine here,” Zieg says.
And Zieg and Schlepp both emphasize that the surrounding rural community is on board, hungry for the hope of revitalization and well-paying jobs.
Meagher County has a small population — about 1,000 people live in White Sulphur Springs, where the mine is sited, and the whole county is just shy of 1,900. But it used to be bigger, Schlepp says, before the sawmill closed and agriculture mechanized. Her graduating class was 30 strong. Zieg’s before that was 43. But Schlepp’s daughter’s class was only 12. In the interim, businesses on White Sulphur’s Main Street flagged, some shuttered, and streets fell into disrepair.
Montana’s flourishing outdoor-recreation industry has started to fill economic holes in the state’s depressed towns, annually contributing $7 billion in state revenue. Recreation on the Smith generates $10 million of that. But White Sulphur doesn’t see a lot of that cash flow.
“We’ve worked hard here to develop a recreation industry of hunting, floating, fishing,” says Zieg. “But when people float the Smith, they usually leave from Great Falls or Helena or Bozeman. They might buy a tank of gas in White Sulphur, but most don’t spend the night or eat here. We have more economic gain from hunting, but that only lasts for the five weeks of the season. And the tourism and recreation industry support pretty-low-paying jobs. Counter that with something like our project, which is steady good employment — lots of tax dollars, lots of good-paying jobs — it’s a completely different economic impact on the community.”
Sandfire promises 240 jobs at an average annual salary of $65,000 over the course of the company’s 11-year project. But guiding on the Smith also provides hundreds of jobs annually. While those people might not live in White Sulphur Springs year-round, Tawney says, that doesn’t make their livelihoods less important. And if the Smith stays clean, those jobs will last far past the finite life of the mine. “That’s why in my experience, there’s universal opposition from guides and outfitters,” he says, “because even if the science says it can be done, there’s still that risk. The mine only has to mess up once.”
The Smith also provides livelihoods to the people who own land on the river, which runs through a patchwork of federal and state land as well as big swaths of private property. Many of those landowners actively oppose the mine, having donated tens of thousands of dollars collectively to the litigation efforts to stop it, according to American Rivers.
“We’re all talking about it, and I haven’t heard of one landowner who’s supportive of that mine — from small cabin owners to large landowners,” says Willie Rahr, whose family has owned a ranch on the Smith for nearly 40 years. He calls himself a moderate Democrat, but says there is general consensus in the canyon, with signs in front of properties all down the river reading “No Smith River Mine!”
Zieg maintains that those same landowners are also against the federal protections that Sen. Tester proposes for the Smith because they see it as “yet another imposition” on their private-property rights in a state where private property is king. But Rahr says every landowner he’s talked to is in favor of the Wild and Scenic designation proposed by Tester. And if the mine leaks, “that is 100 percent an imposition on our private-property rights,” he says. “That canyon is a massive source of value and happiness for our family — and to risk having it all be destroyed?”
Jon Tester has been hailed as a populist Western Democrat, practicing the brand of libertarian Democratic politics that grew from the myth of rugged frontier individualism, where less government, more local control, and personal liberty feature heavily. As one of the last working citizens in the Senate, he still comes home every weekend to tend his Big Sandy wheat farm in northeastern Montana.
“Clean water isn’t partisan — it’s essential,” Tester tells Rolling Stone via email. “Farmers like me make a living using clean water, and so do outfitters, guides, and entrepreneurs who create jobs and bring revenue into our state.”
Tester is likely to reintroduce the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act in April, which would bestow the Wild and Scenic designation on the Smith and other rivers — but even the highest federal protections won’t act as an immediate silver bullet to save the Smith. Because the Black Butte copper mine is on private property, the state has jurisdiction, not the federal government. Federal protections will come into play, says Graham Coppes, a Missoula-based environmental lawyer with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, for Sandfire’s expansion plan.
“It seems a little disingenuous for the company to describe this as a ‘small operation,’” Coppes says. Generally, mining companies only profit from economies of scale, he explains, and so they often want to locate near federal mineral claims. That’s the case here: Sandfire has pitched investors on its plan to create a 50-year industrial-mining district on 40 mineral claims it’s purchased on adjacent federal lands. A federal Wild and Scenic designation on the Smith River could create legal avenues to withdraw those claims and prevent expansion. By then, though, it might be too late for the Smith.
“The thing about metal deposits is that we don’t get to decide where they are,” Zieg says. “The world did that for us. We find what Mother Nature presents to us and have to deal with it as best we can.”
Coppes disagrees. “At some point, we have to recognize that we’ve developed almost the entire world. We’re fighting for this fractional percentage of what’s left,” he says. “If we say that a global or local need for some resource should take precedent over the very few remaining pristine places left on the planet, that sort of Manifest Destiny will allow us to develop everything. No place will be left untouched. That’s an irreconcilable future.”