The Clark Fork of the Columbia is Montana’s largest river, greater than the mighty Missouri at the state border. This Rocky Mountain basin includes one third of Montana’s human population, wilderness areas, national parks and forests, productive river valleys, the country’s largest superfund complex, and such fabled waters as Flathead Lake, the Blackfoot and Bitterroot Rivers, and Rock Creek. A visitor looking on the snow-capped mountains, grassy valleys and sparkling streams might imagine them unchanged since creation. But the basin has seen many changes and continues to be shaped by human activities.

Powerful forces erected the Rocky Mountains 150 million years ago. About three million years ago, a series of ice ages began sculpting the river valleys and mountain ranges. About 15,000 years ago, glacial ice blocked the Clark Fork River, creating 2900 sq mile Lake Missoula. The dam broke and drained the lake many times, shaping the land all the way to the Pacific. After the end of the ice age about 10,000 years ago, native people settled the landscape, transformed it with fire and hunted some species to extinction. European trappers arrived in the early 1800’s, changing the water cycle subtly by removing beavers whose dams held water on the land. The railroads brought many settlers in the 1860’s, further transforming the land and water with logging, ranching, irrigation, & predator control. Mining came to basin in the 1850’s and reached industrial scale around the turn of the century. Massive amounts of mining waste were generated in the headwaters of streams & rivers, and washed downstream, devastating fisheries. Four hydroelectric dams were built on the Clark Fork mainstem and more on the Flathead River system. A large pulp mill was built in 1950’s on the middle river, adding to the river’s load. An interstate highway was constructed along the river mainstem in the 1970’s, channelizing and riprapping parts of the river. Small towns grew into cities, and the basin’s population rose to 340,000 by the end of the twentieth century. Exotic plants and animals introduced by Europeans compete with native species. Fire suppression and climate change alter the fire regime that shapes the forests and prairies.

The cumulative effects of the changes brought about by man approach the great changes wrought by the glaciers. Humans once saw themselves in a struggle against powerful and overwhelming natural forces. In the past century, we have come to recognize that our own actions create many of our problems, and we now seek to understand how we can live in greater harmony with our environment and repair past mistakes. A few examples of this growing concern in the Clark Fork basin are summarized below.

In the 1950’s, the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club convinced the powerful Anaconda Mining Company to reduce its damage to the Clark Fork by providing some treatment ponds on the river. In 1970, a committee of respected scientists issued the Bolle Report, an influential study evaluating the management of Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, which was undergoing intensive clearcutting and road building. The report concluded that the forest had been overcut and roaded to the detriment of watershed, wildlife, recreation, and grazing values. In the 1970’s a series of federal & state laws greatly increased environmental protection. National forests were to develop plans through a public process that managed their resources based on multiple-use, sustained-yield principles. Industrial and municipal wastewater discharges began to be more effectively treated. The upper Clark Fork and its fish populations begin to recover. Tourism grew, and the economies and property values of Missoula, Polson and Kalispell became increasingly tied to environmental quality.

In 1981 soon after the mines & smelters in the Clark Fork headwaters closed for economic reasons, the area was declared a superfund site under the recently passed superfund law. Then in 1983, the pulp mill near Missoula requested an expanded discharge permit. Hundreds of citizens from western Montana & northern Idaho attended a hearing in Missoula on the pulp mill permit, calling for greater protection for the river. In addition to the studies associated with the upper Clark Fork superfund sites, the 1980’s saw an EIS performed on the pulp mill permit and a major study of the Flathead River basin, prompted by concerns about transboundary pollution.

In 1985, members of the Montana Academy of Science recognized the tremendous interest in the many studies being conducted on the river, and convened a symposium in Butte at Montana Tech to present to the public the results of some of these studies. 300 people attended the symposium, including many non-scientist citizens who were concerned about the river. The symposium focused on superfund-related studies in the upper river, but also included papers on the river’s reservoirs, pulp mill impacts, and an overview of the many synergistic problems facing the river. Proceedings were published and are reproduced on this 1985 Symposium web page.

In the years following that first symposium, river watchdog groups and watershed conservation & restoration groups formed in every part of the basin in the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s. To concerns about impacts from mining, logging and road construction were added concerns about excess nutrient loading & algae growth, stream dewatering by irrigation, grazing impacts, exotic species introductions, and residential development in floodplains. The basin’s 5 national forests developed forest plans and began monitoring in connection with those plans.

By 1990 there was interest in holding a second Clark Fork Symposium to showcase studies conducted in connection with the above concerns. The 2nd Clark Fork Symposium was held in Missoula at the University of Montana. The papers attempted to provide a picture of the condition of the mainstem of the Clark Fork, and addressed levels of heavy metals, nutrients, and algae, macroinvertebrate communities as indicators of water quality, and economic valuation of the fishery. This symposium was also well attended and featured many poster presentations. In addition, citizen groups played a growing role in the symposium, helping sponsor the event along with interested businesses. At the end of the symposium, the executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition summed up the take home messages for citizens. The 1990 Proceedings were published and are also reproduced online here.

A growing community of Clark Fork river watchers agreed that there should be a symposium every 5 years to allow scientists and citizens to come together to discuss how science can inform the conservation of the basin.

In 1995, the 3rd Clark Fork symposium was held in Missoula at the Boone and Crocket Club. Speakers discussed long term studies of flow and sediment loading, fisheries restoration projects, whirling disease, and other concerns. Unfortunately, no proceedings were published for this symposium.

In 2000, the 4th Clark Fork Symposium focused on the extensive restoration efforts underway in the basin. Speakers presented the science associated with watershed, river & fishery restoration efforts carried out by the Montana Natural Resource Damage program, USFS watershed program, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Salish and Kootenai tribes, and power companies mitigating the impacts of dams. In addition the Clark Fork River voluntary nutrient reduction program was explained. And over 50 posters presented a wide variety of studies conducted in connection with restoration & reclamation projects throughout the basin. The organizer of the symposium presented a state of the river report that briefly over-viewed indicators of river condition, the lack of trend information, and the financial commitments of a wide range of restoration efforts being implemented or planned for the near future -- around $1 billion.

The 2000 Clark Fork Symposium also featured a workshop on the use of online watershed data, a round table of watershed groups, discussing their efforts at watershed restoration, and a tour of Clark Fork Superfund work. The proceedings of the 2000 Symposium appear here.

The 2005 Clark Fork Symposium was held from March 31-April 2 in Missoula at the University of Montana. This symposium showcased the science that has guided and evaluated restoration and other conservation efforts in the basin in the past 5 years. Scientists and watershed groups working on the basin presented slideshows, posters, workshops, and field trips. The 2005 Symposium proceedings can be seen here.

The 2010 Clark Fork Symposium was held from March 4-5 at the University of Montana. The Symposium was held in conjunction with a Clark Fork Watershed Roundtable organized by the Clark Fork River Basin Task Force. The Roundtable focused on water management and drought planning. The Symposium included a State of the River Report, a panel on the restoration of the upper Clark Fork, presentations on long term trends in Flathead Lake, and 27 presentations on conservation studies and projects throughout the basin. The 2010 Symposium proceedings are here.

The 2015 Clark Fork Symposium covered 30 years of conservation progress, the science of the CSKT Water Rights Compact, and the importance of conserving natural system storage to mitigate climate change impacts on the river. There were presentations on fisheries, groundwater, restoration efforts, watershed education and more. Field trips included tours of Missoula (nearly) ‘Zero Waste’ wastewater treatment plant and Milltown State Park (a former superfund site). The 2015 symposium proceedings are linked here.

For 30 years, the Clark Fork Symposia have helped disseminate scientific study results to citizens and provided a forum where scientists and citizens can discuss the meaning of past studies and prioritize future studies and conservation actions in the basin.

Dr. Vicki Watson, Clark Fork Symposium organizer
University of Montana Watershed Health Clinic

Thanks to the following for providing input to the above history:

  • Loren Bahls, Hannaea
  • Jim Kuipers, Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee
  • Pat Munday, Montana Tech of the University of Montana
  • Peter Nielsen, Missoula Water Quality District
  • Ruth Watkins, Tri-State Water Quality Council