Working for Rivers: Clark Fork Coalition



As director of the Clark Fork Coalition, Tracy Stone-Manning builds bridges over controversial issues


by Glenn Himebaugh

Being an environmentalist in Montana is not always easy. In a state where the issue of the environment is often polarized against jobs, it's not always easy bringing both sides to the table, but Tracy Stone-Manning has succeeded in doing just that.

    Stone-Manning, executive director of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition, has turned the 1,200-member organization into one of the nation's most successful environmental advocates. She's done it by getting people on both sides of environmental issues to listen to each other and to realize  everyone's got a stake in the outcome.

    "It is our job and our challenge as environmentalists to bridge the cultural divide, to break down the stereotypes and to show that by advocating for a healthy environment we are advocating for healthy communities and for average Montanans," she explains. "The driving force behind the work I do is my bedrock belief that humans cannot take care of one another unless we take care of the planet, and vice versa."

    The removal of Milltown Dam at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers is one of Stone-Manning's most significant undertakings she and the coalition have tackled.  Since 2000, the Clark Fork Coalition has pushed for removal of the dam and the 6.6 million cubic yards of toxic sediments that drifted downstream from decades of mining and smelting near Butte and Anaconda.  

    More than 13,000 citizens, businesses and organizations wrote the Environmental Protection Agency and demanded the dam's removal. The federal government devised a $100 million plan to remove the dam and clean up the sediment. The dam removal and Superfund site cleanup should be complete by 2010.

    Another Coalition-backed campaign involves a $120 million cleanup of 56 miles of the upper Clark Fork River. To put its money where its mouth is, the Coalition purchased a 2,300-acre ranch with nearly three miles of river footage where they'll restore the land. 

    The Coalition is pressing the U.S. Forest Service to remove Mike Horse Dam from the headwaters of the Blackfoot River before it collapses and spills toxic mine tailings into the water as it did 30 years ago. 

 Stone-Manning's work has been recognized by leaders of state. After Brian Schweitzer was elected governor of Montana in 2004, she was among the finalists for the job as director of the Department of Environmental Quality.

    She didn't get the job, "but our ability to bring people together was clearly noticed," she said. She was among 29 finalists nationally for the Ford Foundation's Leadership for a Changing World award in 2004, and former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams says he believes Stone-Manning's success stems largely from the fact that "she understands, perhaps intuitively, that common goals are what bring opposing people together."

    Williams, now senior fellow at the University of Montana's Center for the Rocky Mountain West, adds that Stone-Manning has the unusual ability to approach subjects innovatively. Stone-Manning talks about environmental ideas clearly and effectively to fellow environmentalists, business leaders, community leaders and government agencies. She can work with all of them.  She is truthful, effective, and sincere in promoting an advocacy for environmental health, one colleague says.

Stone-Manning sees her work as being rooted in Montana's landscape and her work has the potential to benefit, as Wallace Stegner once wrote, a people that matches the scenery.

    "How can geography and its on-the-ground realities shape and inform politics?" she asks. "How do we transport environmentalism beyond the us vs. them, jobs vs. the environment debates? These are the kinds of questions that direct and influence my work. I'm fundamentally optimistic."  

    Clearly, Stone-Manning, 40, enjoys her job and thrives on it. "I love the camaraderie of this work, how it places me squarely within a community, a full participant in the flow of public life. I love the fact that there are days when working on behalf of the river and those who cherish it is more a gift than a mission."

    As much as Montana and its citizens inspire Stone-Manning's efforts, she's not native to the state. She arrived here in 1988 from the east coast to pursue a master's degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana. The Virginia native brought with her a bachelor's degree in broadcast/film from the University of Maryland.

    Wild fires were burning in Yellowstone National Park and the Scapegoat Wilderness when she arrived in Missoula and started reading reports written by Richard Manning, then a reporter for The Missoulian newspaper. Manning, who's moved on to become a widely published author, addressed an environmental journalism class Tracy took in 1989, and she asked him to be a local judge for the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula. The couple married in 1990. They walked across the Bob Marshall Wilderness for their honeymoon.     

Becoming the Clark Fork Coalition's executive director was a natural progression for Stone-Manning, who had served on its board from 1993 to 1999, with a year off in 1997 to work for Ecotrust in Oregon. Her first job in the west was with Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula. She resigned to follow her husband to Stanford University where he had a journalism fellowship. She also founded Headwaters News, an online environmental newspaper housed in the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. 

    And what does the future hold for Stone-Manning?

    Five years from now, she says, she wants to see an active network of people working together  to realize the vision of an ecologically restored, economically stable, culturally rich valley in the upper Clark Fork basin. "While the Coalition will be a part of that network, it will not lead it," she says. "By then, we will have found and cultivated local leaders.

    "Our work in the upper Clark Fork could become a model of how ecological restoration can drive economics and culture in the West and of how environmentalists can bridge demographic and cultural gaps."

    Her ultimate goal, she adds, is to see people move beyond denial and the rhetoric of anger regarding environmentalism. " We need to ask and answer the important question of how can we carve out tenable lives that enrich us and sustain the planet?"

    On the Web:

About the Clark Fork River

    The Clark Fork River:∑ carries snowmelt and rainfall from a watershed covering 22,000 square miles;∑ travels 320 miles from Butte to Lake Pendoreille. By the time it crosses into Idaho the river carries 16.5 million acre-feet of water, which equals the volume of the Colorado River in a wet year.

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