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Montana governor floats free-flowing Clark Fork

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MILLTOWN, Mont. (AP) – Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer became one of the first people in more than 120 years to legally float past the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers in a symbolic gesture to showcase work that is returning the river to its natural state.

The governor brought along a fly rod July 3 and landed an 18-inch cutthroat trout in a part of the river once blocked by the Milltown Dam.

“It’s clear that the Clark Fork still has a ways to go, but in a couple of years, it’s going to be restored. And you can already see that this will open up an amazing resource for the people of Montana,” Schweitzer told the Missoulian newspaper. “It’s great to see it today, and I can’t wait to see what it becomes tomorrow.”

A $100 million-plus project has helped restore the river and deal with some of the environmental harm from mine and smelter waste that washed downstream from the Butte area to Milltown, near Missoula, during a 100-year span.

Milltown Dam was removed from the confluence in phases, the last of them this year, and the Clark Fork was rerouted to its natural channel.

Joining Schweitzer July 3 were Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman James Steele Jr., fishing guide John Havlik, and Daniel Kiely with the Clark Fork Coalition. A second raft carried other officials, and the rafts floated about three miles before reaching the former Milltown Reservoir.

“It’s really awesome and a great honor to float past where the dam was and enjoy something my people haven’t been able to enjoy since the 1880s,” said Steele. “This is an area where our people had many wars, but also it was our main east-west road to the buffalo. So it’s really important from that aspect, to see this area returning to what it was.”

The trip was part of the Clark Fork 320, a 20-day float that has Havlik and Kiely floating 320 miles of the river from near Butte to Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.

“This was the best day of my life,” said Havlik. “I’m a junkie for the Clark Fork, it’s been a huge part of my life. To be a part of the first trip through that area, it was just an unbelievable opportunity.”

It will be at least another two years before that section of the river is open to other floaters. Schweitzer made the trip possible with a one-day exemption that he described as a “fact-finding mission.”

“I’m here to tell you, the Clark Fork River is back,” he said.

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