Smith River Protection

What makes the Smith such a remarkable place?

Located in west-central Montana, the Smith is the only river in Montana that requires a recreational permit, awarded via a lottery system, in order to float the corridor. Boaters embark from Camp Baker near White Sulphur Springs, and travel nearly 60 miles over several days, camping beneath towering limestone cliffs in a canyon that seems to go on forever.

Jaw dropping views await around every bend and the river features world-class angling for wild brown and rainbow trout. But fishing is such a small piece of the Smith’s story: it’s a place of great recreational, ecological and cultural value for many people who have visited this valley from around the globe for thousands of years. Floating the Smith is “a bucket-list trip” for many people and those that know it well will drop everything when given a chance to return.

Why is the Smith under threat and what is MTU doing to defend it?

In 2014, a foreign owned mining company, Sandfire Resources, Inc. applied for a copper mine exploration permit on a major headwater tributary to the Smith River, Sheep Creek. Sandfire proposes to mine in a sulphide ore body, which makes this mine a high risk for producing acid mine drainage.  Acid mine drainage is environmentally devastating and requires permanent water treatment.

On April 9, 2020, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released their Record of Decision(ROD) permitting the Black Butte Mine. Montana Trout Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, and a coalition of partner organizations, including Montana Environmental Information Center, American Rivers, and Earth Works! initiated legal action to stop the mine on June 4, 2020.

Our coalition asserts that DEQ failed to adequately protect the Smith by awarding a mining permit to Sandfire and ignored the comments of a record 12,000+ people in opposition to the Black Butte project. We also believe the mine threatens Montanans’ constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment. On April 11, 2022, a Montana District Court agreed and vacated the mining permit on July 5, 2022. Unfortunately, on Feb. 26, 2024, the Montana Supreme Court overruled the lower court and reinstated the company’s permit. We are awaiting another hearing on our challenges to the mine’s water rights claims before the court later this spring.

What can I do to help save the Smith?

While the time for public comment on the Mine has passed, Sandfire and others have nearly 700 mining claims on public lands in the watershed. MTU and our partners are continuing to protect the Smith by encouraging the U.S. Forest Service to stop potential public land mining in the area through a mineral withdrawal. Add your name to our petition asking the USFS to take this essential step to preserve the Smith for future generations.

In addition, MTU continues to incur significant costs in our fight to defend the Smith. Please visit our donation page to make a contribution today.

Smith River Protection Timeline

A visual history of our fight to protect the Smith.

Learn More About the Smith River and the Mine

  • Conservation groups challenge Smith River mine permit

    On June 4, 2020 Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center, Trout Unlimited, Earthworks, and American Rivers filed a lawsuit in state district court challenging the mine operating permit approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), alleging a failure to conduct a thorough environmental analysis and ignoring over 12,000 public comments opposing the mine.…

  • Permit for Smith mine approved despite major public opposition

    This is the wrong mine in the wrong ore body in the wrong watershed. The DEQ completely failed to look at that cumulative analysis, the potential of mine expansion to occur. It’s going to impact several more tributaries of the Smith River if in fact Sandfire is able to pursue its vision for this 50-year mining…

  • Public demands protection of the Smith River

    “I believe this proposed mine will be another catastrophic event in the history of Montana hard rock mining,” said Curtis Thompson, a Cascade County resident who owns property on the Smith River.  A recent op-ed dives into the Smith River mine Draft EIS and why people should still be extremely concerned. You can read the…