Miracle on Big Spring Creek

By: 
AL EGGERS

Late morning, July 7, in the field bordering north Big Spring Creek and Highway 191, 30 or so folks, many our greying neighbors, watched Mark Machler fire up an antique restored WWII surplus D4, show the tractor off a bit, then drop the blade and turn some dirt. It was a miraculous moment. The moment was, from my perspective, a miracle.
The sweet sound from old D-4 took me back to long past days pulling line from the backside of a D-7, logging old growth, sometimes in creek beds. The D-4 driven by Mark’s uncle George back in 1961 changed 4,000-6,300 feet of meandering north Spring Creek into a 2,500-foot ditch. I never saw that 6,540 feet of creek, but wish I had. It’s the section Karl Gies called the “some of the best trout fishing in Montana,” and that was once used for the Lewistown annual fishing derby.
The consequences of the channelization were many, complex and enduring: the obvious loss of fish habitat, and the less obvious, but quite serious erosion problems within the channelized portion and upstream, siltation and sedimentation down stream, and more.
George Machler acted within the law in straightening Spring Creek. Housing was needed. The land was his. But even so, folks were upset, angry. Some may still feel so. There was a hell of a fight, 147 rounds. The battle widened to include the disputes concerning disposal of street snow by the City of Lewistown and septic tank drainage on the upper creek, and lawsuits and injunctions ensued. It was sort of a tag-team affair involving, in one way or another, many more than just those of us standing in the field on that beautiful morning.
All sides in the decades-long battles resulting from that bit of engineering hydrology were in that field that day; there to celebrate success in the decades-long struggle to obtain the funding and permits for the Machler Project, and to break ground officially begin the restoration of the 2,500-foot channelized section of north Big Spring Creek to its former beauty and productivity. It was a groundbreaking event.
Now, here’s the first half of the miracle. All those folks standing out in the morning sunshine, and many others, worked and fought collectively, not always together, not all at once, and not always on the same side, for decades to resolve the problems caused by the Machler channelization. That so many people with so many differing points of view were able to come together and to resolve this decades-long problem now is the first half of a miracle. But its only half of the miracle: A miracle that also restores ones faith in the democratic process.
The other half of the miracle is a work in progress.
Like many small towns in rural America and Montana, Lewistown is losing population in crisis. Population shrinks, jobs are scarce and mostly low paying. Over time, fewer and fewer people will find good-paying jobs in agriculture and resource-based industries locally. It is progress and arithmetic. Where do we turn if we are to save our beautiful community? If we are, we must provide economic opportunities, for our young people and to attract people to Lewistown and Fergus County as visitors and residents. We must make better use of all our resources.
Big parts of that future are the economic benefits of the great and varied fishing and hunting opportunities, and the easy access to public lands and waters, which drew me and many others to Montana, and specifically to this area. The present and future economic benefits of such resources cannot be overstated. But to realize those benefits, to save and expand our local economy, we need to improve, sustain, preserve, advertise and make better use of local outdoor recreational opportunities, to continue to attract new residents and visitors, and to provide local employment opportunities.
Right now we have two small but important resource problems in need of fixing; tough problems, but ones we can resolve if we pull together.
The first concern, Carter Ponds (you know, the ponds up by the cemetery) where we used to catch fish, lots of fish, nice trout, 4-5 pounders from the lower pond, and dinner-fish limits from the upper pond. Three or four years ago, bluegills were illegally stocked, destroying an excellent fishery. The bluegills reproduced faster than rabbits in Australia, eating everything, perhaps even some of Mr. Carter’s cows. In not much more than a year the trout were gone and all that remained were swarms of 2-3 inch bluegills. Subsequently, we taxpayers spent $500,000 through Fish, Wildlife and Parks to get rid of the bluegills and establish a put-and-take fishery on the Upper Pond, and a trophy fishery on the Lower Pond. It will work. In a year or so we will be catching nice fish from the ponds once again. But to maintain this fantastic fishery we need to convince folks that catching a 5-pound trout is a lot more fun than catching five pounds of 3-inch blue gills.
The second of the problems is the risk of losing Ackley Lake as a state park, and possibly our use of the park to camp, fish, hunt, boat, swim, ice skate, watch birds and stand around a campfire with your friends on a cool, starry evening. Neither FWP nor State Parks wants the responsibility and cost of maintaining the park. Aug. 18, at 11 a.m. State Parks is holding a hearing about this issue at the Buffalo Jump Park east of Great Falls. Petitions are now available at sporting goods stores in Lewistown, Hobson and Stanford. Call your elected representatives to let them know your position and to offer suggestions. You could mention that Ackley Lake State Park is the only state park closer within 100 miles of Lewistown.
The second half of the miracle, which goes well beyond the channel and flood plain of Big Spring Creek, is that we can help Lewistown, Fergus County, and Central Montana remain the beautiful and economically viable home place they are now, and help to provide economic and recreational opportunities for ourselves, and for generations to come, by preserving and taking better advantage of our abundant outdoor recreational resources (now recreational opportunities), our only growth industry. But to do so, it has to be “We.”

Al Eggers is a Professor Emeritus in Geology at the University of Puget Sound. He retired to Lewistown in 2006, and calls himself an active outdoorsman, volcanologist and radical environmentalist.

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