Earth Day and the Smith River

Smith River floaters arriving at camp.

This year’s version of Earth Day will be on Friday, April 22. This will be the 53rd annual Earth Day observance, going back to 1969, when Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin initiated the first Earth Day in response to environmental damage caused by an oil spill on the Pacific Coast near Santa Barbara, California. 

That first Earth Day happened in “Teach-Ins” at college campuses across the country. The next year, after recruiting a co-chair, Rep. Pete McCloskey of California, and hiring some staff, over 20 million people participated in Earth Day events across the country.

 We continue to observe Earth Day to raise public awareness of the environment and the fact that are always new environmental issues cropping up that need public attention.

This year’s theme for Earth Day is “Invest in Our Planet.” This theme is intended to encourage citizens, businesses, and government to act now on climate change and other issues for a sustainable future.

 Climate change is a crucial issue as we continue to learn the ramifications of a warming climate, especially as we begin to understand how burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases have raised global temperatures and resulting extreme weather events, such as flooding, drought, and wildfires.

 This month, in addition to some heavy snow, which brought badly needed moisture in many areas of Montana, there was good news about the Smith River.

 The Smith River is one of Montana’s treasures. From its headwaters in the White Sulfur Springs area, the river runs through spectacular canyons in the Little Belt Mountains before it goes out on the prairies and its convergence with the Missouri River south of Great Falls. In addition to spectacular scenery, the river is famed for its flyfishing.

 The Smith is the only Montana river that is administered by the State Park system, and access to the 60 some miles of canyons is by permit only, or through booking a trip with one of the small number of outfitters authorized to operate on the Smith.

Drawing a Smith River permit may not be quite as difficult as drawing a mountain sheep permit, but it’s still a really big deal. For most people who take the Smith River float trip, it’s the trip of a lifetime.

 A major controversy in recent years is the proposed open pit copper mining project in the White Sulfur Springs area, and in the watershed of Sheep Creek, one of the Smith River’s major tributaries.

The mining project would run some 13 years and extract 14.5 million tons of copper ore. It would also generate 13 million tons of acidic rock tailings. Tintina Montana, the planned mine operator, is a U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian mining company, and also is known as Sandfire Resources America Inc., and the proposed mine is known as the Sandfire Black Butte Copper Project.

 Tintina applied for a mining permit in 2015, and to say that the proposal for a big open pit copper mine in the Smith River watershed is controversial would be a huge understatement. Despite 12,000 comments, mostly critical, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a permit to Tintina after just one hearing in July 2021.

 Montana Trout Unlimited, along with Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, and American Rivers, sued DEQ and Tintina Montana Inc., accusing DEQ of simply accepting assurances from Tintina that the project wouldn’t affect the waters. A District Court judge issued a ruling that DEQ’s approval without further testing and analysis was “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful.” The judge ordered all parties to propose remedies during a 45-day period.

 In a celebratory message, David Brooks, Executive Director of Montana Trout Unlimited, noted that, “This marks a rare moment in Montana history that a mine has been stopped because it poses serious environmental works.” He also cautioned that “there are always more rounds, so that while we are celebrating this win, we remain poised for our next action.”

 So, as always, we celebrate Earth Day at the same time we learn how much more work there is still to do.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, and The Corner Bookstore, or online at

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