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As I See It

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

by Mark Steele

Somebody asked me to describe my politics the other day. I responded that I was cynically independent. I’m the guy in the room who doesn’t view a glass of water as being half full or half empty. But rather, I want to know who the hell drank my water.

So it was with such skepticism that I signed up for a tour last week with the Upper Blackfoot Confluence. It seemed more like a place to go fishing rather than the name of a group composed of local industry and conservationists to push the ball down the court on behalf of fish issues along the Upper Blackfoot River.

My guess was that it would be a few thousand dollars of fluff money tossed at trying to improve the native cutthroat habitat in the river, but mostly about garnering headlines and a lot of pat-me-on-the-backs.

I was wrong. Drastically wrong. My apologies for being a born cynic, although cynics seem to be the most pleased when something goes right.

What I saw was three local phosphate mining companies of Agrium, Simplot, and Monsanto moving ahead with fish projects in full cooperation with Trout Unlimited and the Idaho Conservation League. They were not only working together, they were getting things done and were also working with livestock and landownders to make good things happen.

What is kind of funny to me is that I don’t think any of the players on the tour cared if I was there. Publicity didn’t seem to be the mantra of the day, which is in itself very refreshing.

What I saw was the key players showing to state and federal agency officials what can be done when there is a common goal. In this case it was doing something to help protect and bring back native Yellowstone cutthroat trout that have been declining over the past 50 years from possibly the single best fisheries of its kind in the West, if not the world, to whether the runs could even be saved.

At heart the issue is mining and selenium leaching, and that’s why industry is involved. They realize that they are impacting, to some degree that is highly debatable, the waterways of the Blackfoot. Remediation effects will take many years and probably decades.

In the meantime, consultant and mediator Keith Allred was asked to try and get a rope around all the many issues and studies being done. Allred ran for governor in 2010 against Butch Otter and was defeated, but even opponents respect the intelligence and integrity of Allred. It was not lost on me that Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill from Rexburg also showed up for the tour. That was a surprise and his comments were appreciated.

Anyway, the big picture somehow got narrowed down to a doable definition of what can be done to enhance and protect fisheries and possibly wildlife along the Upper River. That was over a year ago and in a short span projects are being completed and more brought on line.

This consortium of sorts reminds me of the old saying, “Lead or follow, but get out of the way.” Almost a million bucks has been brought to the table in the form of grants, donations, federal and state funding, and industry backing (which is something approaching a half-million dollars a year).

A project on Diamond Creek can’t be emphasized enough for these groups, industry, and the cowboys of the Bear Lake Grazing Company coming together to make modern fish screens as part of the water divisions. Instead of planks in the creek to cut the irrigation water out on the land, a bypass system, with back flow devices, paddle wheels, and fish and debris screens will save hundreds and likely thousands of fish a year from being diverted from the creek into the pasture.

In the golden years of bank-to-bank cutthroat trout in the system, the loss was probably a small matter. But that isn’t the case anymore when spawning numbers range from 500 a year ago to 2,000 this year. And there’s been even less.

This doesn’t come free. Keep in mind industry didn’t have to do any of this. It is certainly true they are all permitting new mines, or will be, and this in some small way may help them in that process. At least with the public and maybe the agencies.

It is a classic case of the old “can do” attitude this country use to have. Companies and individuals are standing up to do the right thing, even when it costs them money or is a pain in the rear. And they are doing it for the most correct of reasons: it’s the right thing to do.

It is a pleasure for an old cynic to salute all involved and hope federal and state agencies, as well as elected officials and other landowners are watching what can be done well, on short notice, for all the right reasons.

I thank you, but most of all, our future generations will thank you.

Originally published in the Caribou County Star

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