The river, debased by years of logging, unrestricted grazing and mining damage, was almost empty of native trout when Maclean's book appeared. Even stocked trout virtually vanished after 1979, when Montana stopped dumping hatchery fish in the river. With almost nothing to catch, local anglers mourned and complained. But they did little to improve the situation until 1987, when the Sunshine Mining Company spurred them to action with its plans for a new open-pit gold mine near Lincoln, where the river rumbles down from the Continental Divide. Thus was born the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which helped to scuttle the proposed mine and goaded the state to examine the river's failing health. This led, in 1990, to the first restoration efforts, which have continued in the years since, with more than 45 tributaries restored, 48 miles of stream channel reconstructed and access for migratory fish opened to 460 miles in the river system. In the same period, some 2,600 acres of wetlands have been preserved, 2,300 acres of native grasslands put to rights and 93,383 acres of private lands placed in perpetual conservation easements. In addition, the community group Blackfoot Challenge has joined with the Nature Conservancy to purchase 88,000 acres of corporate timberlands and transfer the parcels to a variety of public and private interests. "We're making this whole watershed work in a sustainable way for people, fish and wildlife," says Aasheim. "It has to be a win-win situation for the landowner and the wildlife. Otherwise it doesn't succeed."
Having the whole community involved in restoring the watershed makes for an unlikely collection of ranchers who don't fish and fishermen who don't ranch, in league with timber companies, conservationists, politicians, outfitters, various foundations, and state and federal agencies. Perhaps the most unlikely player in this incongruent cast is Jim Stone, a second-generation rancher and chairman of the Blackfoot Challenge, which represents the disparate interests of those living in the watershed.
"I'm odd," he says. "I don't like fish. I don't even like water!" He lets this statement sink in. "If you'd asked me about trout in 1985, I'd have said who gives a sh-t?" Stone, a compact man with close-cropped hair and a drooping Fu Manchu mustache, has a puckish glint in his eye. "I was one of those stubborn old ranchers who did it the way grandpa did just because that's the way grandpa did. Put those cows out there and don't worry about the fish and wildlife guys. But now I can see—damn!—they know what they're doing. If those fish aren't doing well, the cows won't. You get good water, you get good grass, you get good grass, you get good cows! We've spent generations worrying about how we can put more pounds on our cows. The minute I started to make the water-and-grass connection, well, the light switch just went on."
Stone has not yet traded his boots for Birkenstocks—he has a reputation to consider—but he has been tireless in preaching the benefits of clean water and wild trout to his ranching neighbors, and he just plunked down $20,000 for the restoration of Hoyt Creek, where Ryen Aasheim and Ty Smith had been rearranging things with the Caterpillar. When that project is finished, Stone will have a steady source of clean water for his pasture, which means that he'll have to spend less for irrigation in the future. "This makes us better cowguys," he says. "We're putting more pounds on our cows, and we've got grass in the bank at the end of the season."
Stone has money in the bank too, thanks to the conservation easements he recently placed on all 2,200 acres of his Rolling Stone Ranch. Under an innovative arrangement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Stone was paid cash for the easements; other landowners have been paid by private groups, or given tax credits. "I got more than $150,000," Stone says. "I used part of that to buy this ranch from my parents. The rest I socked aside to take care of a rainy day." Stone's neighbors have used easement funds to pay off mortgages, buy adjoining land and make improvements on their property. The easements limit future development in the watershed, so that the Big Blackfoot landscape will remain a place of mountain vistas and rolling ranch land—unlike the fast-growing Front Range of the Rockies.
"If you drive through here a hundred years from now," says Ryen Aasheim, "it's going to look like a connected landscape—not one that's subdivided and compromised. That's because the people who live here are taking the long view of things."
This means that Jim Stone might someday pass his ranch intact to his son, Brady Dean Stone, now 7. "Mother Nature's got a chance here," says the elder Stone, waving his arms at the immense Montana sky. "And I'm happy because there's a chance that my son can do this ranching thing if he chooses."
Like many in his community, Stone thinks of ranching in family terms, just as Norman Maclean thought of fly-fishing as a family affair. Maclean has been dead for 17 years, but his son, John, still haunts the Big Blackfoot River, like his father and grandfather before him, and he is grateful for the opportunity. "I'd say the restoration has been a success," says John Maclean, a former Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the author of several nonfiction books. "The tributaries are in better shape, and the fish are bigger than I've seen them in the last decade."
That's the good news. The bad news is that a long-running drought, which began in 1999 and persists today, is killing many of the young trout in the Big Blackfoot system. The system is also under increased fishing pressure, now that the big trout are back.
"I don't fish the Blackfoot in the summer—too damn many fishermen and too much boat traffic," says Maclean. He admits that it was his own father, along with Redford's movie, that triggered the crowding, sustainable only because of the river's catch-and-release rules. Because of them, many of the Big Blackfoot's trout are caught again and again. "Boy, some of those fish look like they've gone 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali," Maclean says "I don't know that it hurts the fish, though. They're in the river."