The “richest acre” is Camp Baker

For “Throwback Thursday” – a social-media thing where people post about things in the past – Tintina Resources posted a photo of a Montana historic-point sign informing travelers about the Smith River Valley. Tintina Resources loved that the sign says the Smith River Valley contained the “richest acre of ground in the world” if you were one of the 1960s gold-placer crowd.

While the claim is debatable – no source is given for the quote and the world is a pretty big place – the Smith River Valley does still contain a rich acre. That would be Camp Baker, where each year about 5,500 river lovers gather over the course of about seven months to launch on their own adventures of the Smith River.

So how does that make Camp Baker the richest acre in the Smith River Valley? Let’s break it down.

For the 2016 season, Montana State Parks took in more than $93,000 on permit applications alone. That came from 9,366 applicants paying $10 each.

Out of those, almost 1,240 scored permits, and each permit holder can invite up to 14 of those closest friends to come along. In 2014, according to the most recent Smith River report, 1,122 permit holders equated to almost 5,400 people total and every person must pay $25 to go on the river. So in 2014, that brought in more than $134,000. You can assume that amount will be even greater this season.

So that’s about $227,000 a year that goes to Montana State Parks, which dearly needs the money. The agency has a $26 million backlog in maintenance and gets no money from the state general fund. So its only income is from $6 vehicle-license tags and fees such as those paid at Camp Baker.

But Smith River money flows into other pockets besides those of Montana State Parks.

For instance, a Smith River shuttle between Camp Baker and the takeout at Eden Bridge costs around $125. In 2014, 751 groups launched onto the Smith River. If we conservatively estimate that each group needed to transport three vehicles to the takeout (the average number of floaters per group is seven), that means shuttle services took in more than $280,000 in 2014.

That doesn’t include the supplies, munchies and gas that people buy in White Sulphur Springs, the money paid for boat and gear rentals or the money paid to and by the eight outfitters that take people down the Smith River. It also doesn’t count the money that the Heaven On Earth Ranch makes from the people who pull off the Smith River near Deep Creek.

It also doesn’t count all the priceless experiences that people have had and hopefully will continue to have on the Smith River. The wise among us know that experiences are far more valuable than things. Things can break or be taken away but memories remain.

The biggest thing to remember is that the money brought in by the Smith River isn’t going away, unlike it would with a boom-and-bust industry like mining. While Tintina Resources has said their mine could produce for 20 years, the Smith River State Park has been generating hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for at least 20 years. And it will do so for years go come as long as something doesn’t ruin the river. Like mine pollution.

There can be no doubt that Camp Baker is the richest acre in the Smith River Valley.