Protect the Smith: What would you say?

Editors note: This week, hundreds of Montanans stood up for the Smith River. If you want to join the fight, go to and click on “Get Information.” We will keep you up to date on the process and how you can help. Thanks for your support.


I would like to remind the DEQ that it’s your duty to do your utmost to ensure our right to a clean and healthful environment, as put forth in the Montana Constitution.

—Malcom Gilbert, Pro Outfitter gear boater at this week’s public meeting on the proposal to put a mine in the headwaters of the Smith River

By Shauna Stephenson

We were snow-bound this week, cooped up and huddled by the wood stove. Outside the temperature hovered around 10 degrees. Up in Helena, anglers were gathering for the third of four public meetings held to take comments on a proposal to place a copper mine in the headwaters of Montana’s Smith River—our only permitted river in the state and one more special place under threat by hard-rock mining.

This scenario is nothing new in Montana, and indeed the West. But this particular proposal hits a little closer to home.

“Should we risk it and go?”

I looked at our five-year-old.

“No, probably not,” I said.

“Would you speak?”

“If I had the chance I would.”

“What would you say?”

At the meeting, more than 200 people showed up despite the snow and the cold. They came to tell the Department of Environmental Quality (the agency tasked with permitting the proposed mine) what it should consider in evaluating the permit and why it should, or in most cases, should not, allow the mine to proceed.

“I am not naive to the necessity of mining. But at the same time there is a right time and a right place for mining. The headwaters of the Smith is not the right time or right place.”

—John Brininstool, a local guide out of Missoula

“Tintina touts the most advanced mining technology. We have heard that from every failed mining company.”

—Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell

“I’ve built a business of the Smith River. I’ve watched my business put kids through college. We provide good-paying jobs. Why risk it?”

—Brandon Boedecker of Pro Outfitters

The support for the Smith in Montana is palpable, especially this week as reports about the crowds these meetings have drawn dot the papers. It’s homegrown and local.

This is the people’s river. Its supporters have made no qualms about that. Hours before the public meeting, the governor looked out his window at the state Capitol and there they were, towing drift boats and rafts that sported “No Smith River Mine” signs. On the northern edge of the grounds a crowd gathered to display more signs, urging the governor and DEQ to protect the Smith and turn down the foreign mining company so eager to make a buck in our distinctly Montana backyard.

What would I say?

Well, it’s pretty simple, really. Yes, I’m an angler. A conservationist. I have concerns about water quality, and quantity. I want a healthy fishery. And a sustainable economy not built on half-truths some company with a foreign address seems bent on shoving down my throat every time I open the newspaper.

But I’m not opposed to the mine simply because I am all of those things.

Honestly, I’m opposed because I’m a mom.

A few summers ago I watched as my daughter crouched on the banks of the Smith totally absorbed in building mud castles. Around her kids splashed and jumped off rocks, shrieking at the cold water, echoes of joy ricocheting through the canyon. She spent her third birthday on the Smith. Then her fifth. She’s learned the way of the boat, the water, the cold shock of a latrine on a bare bum, the taste of burned marshmallows, the way her voice comes back to her when she sings at the cliffs.

As an angler you want to protect a resource. But as a mom, you want to protect a childhood. If a failed mine sat at the head of this beautiful river, spewing toxic waste into the water, would she still have this opportunity?

She takes these things for granted, of course. She’s five. But even at five, she’s not blind to the problem.

She looked at me the other day and said “Hey mom – did we save that river yet? The one with all the geese?”

“No,” I told her. “Not yet. These things aren’t so simple.”

“Well we better hurry up and get to work on that,” she said. “Birthday time is coming.”

I’m opposed to this mine because I think my kid deserves better. Montanans deserve better. And that’s just God’s honest truth.

What would you say?

Shauna Stephenson is TU’s national communications director. She lives and works in Pony, Montana.

By Shauna Stephenson. Shauna Stephenson has been a writer, photographer, communicator and conservationist for nearly two decades, the past decade being spent at Trout Unlimited, working on projects…