Maggie Schmidt, 24, slips underneath a barbed wire fence and into a pasture with five horses. The air is cold and sharp with the first snap of autumn and snow dusts the highest peaks of the Flint Creek Range. She points out her mare, Lily Bee. This past summer the horse was in a trailer and panicked, splitting her head open down to the skull. Schmidt believes the mare had a flashback.
"Abuse cases can go either way, but most horses never forget," she says.
Schmidt keeps Lily Bee's mind off her past by giving her work. They herd cattle together on a ranch in the upper Clark Fork basin near Deer Lodge, in the heart of the nation's largest Superfund site. It's a sweeping valley surrounded by low-slung mountains and scarred by a flood that washed toxic mine waste downriver from Butte and Anaconda over a century ago. Dead patches of land called "slickens" pepper its banks. In one, an animal bone stained teal green lies next to a sun-bleached stump.
"The color in the soil, you almost don't even want to walk through it," says Ted Beck, a rancher in the valley.
The Clark Fork Coalition hired Schmidt to manage the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch a year and a half ago. Next summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will strip away 200 acres of contaminated land and begin rebuilding the property's riverbanks as part of an ambitious restoration of the Clark Fork.
"The most productive land in all places is around the river," Schmidt says.
It's where cows give birth in the spring and hay grows in the summer. It's her job to run the ranch without this prime land.
"That will require patience and stamina in the extreme, I think, and luckily Maggie has those qualities," says Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition.
While the first phase of the cleanup began last March on a neighboring parcel of state-owned property, Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch is the first of 14 major, private landowners to undergo restoration, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. All eyes in the valley will be on Schmidt.
"Even though it's going to be like a bomb went off, in the end the rancher should be left with a piece of ground that's better than it was before," says Schmidt, who adds that the cleanup should increase property values and acreage by removing and restoring previously fenced-off slickens.
"If that is not the case, then it will be a not successful Superfund site. That means that we failed, the DEQ failed, the state failed," she says. "I'm super nervous."
Schmidt is an athletic woman with a perennial squint and a quick smile. As a child she rode bareback and tended horses at a stable outside of Salt Lake City. She was a star soccer player in high school and almost played for the University of Arkansas before a stray cleat nicked her Achilles tendon and ended her senior season. She enrolled in the University of Montana instead and joined the equestrian team. The summer after her freshman year a family friend hired her to herd goats in the vast basalt canyonlands of southeastern Idaho.
"I worked my ass off," she says, "I remember crying behind my sunglasses all the time."
At the end of the season her boss gifted her an abused, liver-colored mareLily Bee. The horse bit, bucked and startled. It took Schmidt four and a half years to break her. "She tested me in every which way. It felt like it was one step forward, 10 steps back," she says.
Lily Bee was in tow when Schmidt began managing Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch in April 2012. It's a valley where experience is measured in generations. She remembers meetings early on when other ranchers spoke over her like a child. It wasn't until she spent days in the saddle that she began developing a rapport with those in the area.
"I think they slowly started seeing me in a different light, like I wasn't this prissy from Missoula who wanted to talk about water rights," she says.
Jeremy Nicholson is a rancher in the valley who attended those early meetings. He calls Schmidt a "sweetheart" with a strong work ethic but doesn't view her ranch as the same as the others.
"It's a nonprofit situation," he says. "They ain't like us, they don't have to make money."
While the ranch is a limited liability company, it is buoyed by the Clark Fork Coalition and two private investors. "I think it always will work against us and how legitimate we're viewed," Schmidt says.
As autumn draws the ranch closer and closer to the day of its restoration, the little details of the largest Superfund site in the nation are beginning to magnify. There are fences to tear down, water to haul, ice to break and fingers to cross. The uncertainties are mounting too.
"Even just having this amount of activity, you don't know how it affects livestock," Schmidt says. "The sounds, the stress, the people, the commotion."
Out in the horse pasture, Lily Bee's wound has healed into a ruddy scab. Schmidt remembers feeling blood on her fingers after the accident. In the far distance trucks rumble back and forth carrying contaminated dirt from the first phase of the Superfund cleanup. Schmidt strokes Lily Bee's head.
"A horse like that with such a strong spirit that's been so mistreated, you're like, 'We're going to get there, we're going get there,'" she says.