Nearly 150 people showed up at Milltown State Park last Saturday to bask on the banks of the fabled confluence. Some toted tubes, others simply strolled along the Clark Fork. Montana State Parks and the nonprofit Friends of Two Rivers teamed up to host a barbecue. The Clark Fork Coalition rekindled its long-dormant Milltown-to-Downtown Float. Everyone arrived to enjoy a single day of something that's pretty much a given everywhere else in Montana: public access.
For more than five years nowsince the removal of the Milltown Damthe confluence has been closed to all but a select few. The reason is pretty obvious: It's a Superfund site, a toxic mess left behind by Montana's copper kings. Millions of dollars have been poured into cleanup and restoration. Train car after train car of tainted sediment has disappeared upriver to Opportunity. And the Clark Fork finally opened to river traffic past its meeting point with the Blackfoot this spring, an event many welcomed with a sense of closure.
Yet Milltown State Park itself remains closed. There's no parking lot, no ranger station and a final site plan is still on the horizon. Save for one day last weekend, the park continues to spark frustration among officials and locals.
"In the spring, I had a few requests from folks who wanted to host other events out there," says Milltown State Park Manager Mike Kustudia. "I kindly but firmly said no, we're just not prepared for it. It was a big deal for us to be able to host this, because I had to bring in help from other parks to make sure it was staffed properly."
As state park manager, Milltown State Park is Kustudia's baby. He understands the frustrations, as well as the anticipation. He spent most of Saturday giving tours and explaining what it will look like when it opens, hopefully next year.
But the one-day-only teaser could come at a risk. By allowing the public brief access to the site, Kustudia says there was some fear of people forgetting or even ignoring the fact that it's still closed. "We had long discussions about it, like, 'Won't people think it's open, or want to be in there all the time?' Hopefully people understand ... we're still working on getting things developed."
More than 100 people have now visited the future park. Odds are they're thirsting for a return already, along with anyone who didn't attend. Kustudia gets it. "We're going to get there," he says. "It's been an exercise in patience for me, too."