Butte Yearns for National Park Designation; Big Stack No Hazard on New Golf Course; Our Lady of the Rockies Looks On
Town leaders of slag choked, strip-mined Butte, Montana, are betting the city's future on that Holy Grail of American Tourism: designation as a National Park.
Butte's charms are markedly different from those of wilderness draws like Yellowstone or Yosemite. It has the dubious distinction of being the nation's biggest Superfund cleanup site.
Butte suffers from a long history of exploitation and bad environmental practices. Mine tailings and gaping mining holes are everywhere. Older homes are still coated with soot from the smelters. The waters of Clark Ford contain copper, zinc, lead and arsenic and are part of the only dead aquifer in the United States.
The showpiece for a Butte National Park would be the gaping Berkeley Pit, a nearly 900-foot deep open mining pit in the center of town. Closed in 1983, it is the Largest Truck-Operated Open Pit Copper Mine in the US [the World's Largest Man-made Pit is in Copperton, UT]. From the visitor's center, a corrugated tunnel through a mound leads to the scenic overlook. The contaminated water at its bottom grows by 3 million gallons a day. Visitors find the Pit deceptively quiet, perhaps because everything near it is dead. In 1995, several hundred snow geese made their last migratory landing when they mistook the liquid in the Pit for regular water -- it's actually acid now.
The alien planet aspects of Butte can be observed in odd places. During our visit a few years back, we noted signs in the motel bathroom warning us not to drink the tapwater for at least two years (we were only staying one night).
Aside from it's purely toxic pleasures, the proposed National Park would feature historic homes and buildings, mostly abandoned, that have been designated as a National Historic Landmark since 1962. Butte was once owned by the Anaconda Copper Company, the visionaries that gave us the Big Stack, the largest freestanding brick structure in the world, in nearby Anaconda. The oil company ARCO inherited the mess in Butte and Anaconda, and has been involved in cleanup efforts in both towns.
The 585-foot tall Big Stack was part of the Washoe Smelter Complex, which was leveled in 1986. The citizens of Anaconda fought to keep the stack standing. In 1990, it was declared by the governor to be a Montana state park.
The City of Anaconda received the land around the Stack as part of a settlement with ARCO. An 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course opened there this summer, in the shadow of the Big Stack. The old copper smelter works have been beautifully landscaped with green grass and black "slag" traps.
While Anaconda seems to be clawing its way up out of the poisons, Butte is larger, with larger problems. Butte sits at the base of the Continental Divide, where a 90-foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary -- Our Lady of the Rockies -- looks down into the Berkeley Pit. A local Catholic church is where you can catch the tour bus for the three hour statue odyssey.
Some of Butte's citizens may be praying to the statue for a miracle, which may be what it takes to get that National Park built. And if Our Lady's statue starts crying, don't be surprised if the tears are full of lead and arsenic -- and really bad for birds....[08/30/1997]