LEWISTON, Mont. — In 1961, George Machler hopped on a bulldozer and began moving earth on his land on the edge of Lewistown, a central Montana community.
When he was done, 8/10ths of a mile of meandering, trout-filled Big Spring Creek crossing his land no longer meandered. It flowed straight.
“They made a ditch basically,” said Clint Smith, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
There was a silver lining.
Monkeying with the prized trout stream’s natural course, which caused massive damage to the stream and the town’s infrastructure, illustrated how environmental damage reaches far beyond property boundaries.
And 14 years later, a law was passed to prevent egregious stream damage in Montana.
Now the creek that sparked the fundamental change in the state’s stream protections has been restored by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks at a cost of $1.6 million.
Nobody is happier than Mark Machler, George Machler’s nephew.
For two decades, he’s been working to restore Big Spring Creek — and his family’s name.
“We kind of had that black mark against the family erased,” said Machler, standing on the bank of Big Spring Creek, whose waters gurgle and ripple in its newly restored path.
One day earlier this month, the creek slowly sashayed across the prairie, its curvy corners shifting one way, then the other, leaving giant S shapes in its wake after 56 years of rushing like a spillway at a hydro-electric dam.
“It’s gorgeous,” Machler said.
It’s meandering also is natural, providing great fish habitat and preventing erosion by slowing the flow of the water, FWP’s Smith says.
“When you straighten a creek, you completely destabilize the slope — so the grade at which the water flows downstream,” FWP’s Smith said.
In a meandering stream, he said, water flows slower, dissipating the energy and reducing erosion.
After Machler bulldozed Big Spring Creek straight, it eroded 14 feet a year between 1961 to 1974, according to FWP records.
Between 1938 and 1953, prior to the damage, Big Spring Creek eroded 2/10ths of an inch a year.
“That’s a stable condition,” Smith says.
‘THERE WAS A SPRING CREEK’
Big Spring Creek is the most popular trout fishery in central Montana, responsible for 8,000 to 10,000 angler days a year and averaging 1,000 to 1,300 trout greater than 10 inches per mile, which is highly productive for creek of its size, Smith says.
“It’s a huge source of pride,” Smith said.
It’s filled with rainbow and brown trout and whitefish that attract anglers from as far away as Billings and Great Falls, which is good for the local economy.
So when George Machler decided to straighten 4,500 feet of meandering creek into a 2,000-foot channel in the winter of 1960-61, it did not go unnoticed.
“There was pretty much a general uproar,” said Mark Machler, who was 9 years old at the time. “Because it was pretty much the best fishing place around.”
“Residents up in arms” was the headline over a story about the controversy in the Feb. 28, 1961, Lewistown Daily News. It quoted George Machler as saying the original streambed was eliminated to improve flood control and make way for development.
“There went Spring Creek,” was the headline over a front page editorial published in the same edition.
The U.S. Air Force had subcontracted with Boeing to install nuclear missiles in the area, and George Machler straightened the stream to accommodate construction of a mobile home park to house the company’s employees, Mark Machler said.
Straightening the creek also gave George Machler more ground to farm to make up for loss of land due to the trailer park development, Mark Machler said.
His uncle, he said, was just trying to get the most out of his property.
“It wasn’t illegal then anyway,” he said.
Big Spring Creek flows 30 miles northwest to its confluence to the Judith River, but 8/10ths of a mile was straightened just north of town beginning at the U.S. Highway 91 bridge.
With the stream flowing faster because it was straight, the energy could not be dissipated laterally in the corners, so it cut deeper into the ground, Smith said.
At the U.S. Highway 191 bridge, the water surface elevation is 13 feet lower than it was prior to the creek due to erosion. Eventually, the creek eroded so badly that it destabilized the foundation of the bridge, which needed to be replaced.
Erosion caused by the straightening devastated fish habitat upstream, and caused flooding downstream, Smith said.
RECONSTRUCTING THE STREAM
The public’s outcry was heard at the state capitol in Helena.
In 1975, the Legislature passed the Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act.
Ever since, Montana property owners have been required to apply for a “310 permit” from the local county conservation district before they put in a dock, install bank-stabilizing riprap or alter a stream alignment.
“The Montana 310 law should be the Machler 310 law,” Mark Machler says.
The new meandering channel is 3,400 feet compared to 2,000 feet.
Its primary features are two large meandering loops.
Just before Christmas 2016, 55 years after George Machler filled in the original channel, bulldozers began filling in Machler’s straightened ditch with dirt and introducing flow into the restored, curvy stretch of stream.
“It was pretty exciting to see it happen,” Smith said.
Under normal circumstances, as a fisheries biologist, he would have been mortified to witness a stream channel being filled with dirt.
To reconstruct the stream, which had become completely disconnected from the floodplain, MK Weeden, a contractor in Lewistown, removed 60,000 cubic yards of material.
MK Weeden hired Stream Works Inc. out of Lincoln to complete bank treatments such as the placement root wads into the banks to create fish habitat and control erosion.
This spring, about 1,000 trees and shrubs were planted with the goal of transforming the stream and surrounding land into a functioning riparian ecosystem.
Members of the Fergus High School Outdoor Club, with help from the Snowy Mountain chapter of Trout Unlimited, chipped in by cutting 15,000 willow branches that were planted to provide bank stabilization.
“It’s going to have a lot of character here when the trees get up and going,” Machler said. “Almost park-like.”
Fish already are moving into the improved stretch of stream.
“We anticipate further improvement,” Smith said.
They never left completely with about 900 fish per mile occupying the straightened area.
Just downstream, where Big Spring Creek continued to meander, the creek supported 1,300 fish per mile.
A natural meandering stream provides habitat complexity, such as undercut banks and areas where woody debris collects. The complexity is critical for fish spawning and rearing, Smith said.
With a straight stream, “You lose the natural rhythm of riffle, run, glide, pool,” Smith said.
A GOD-GIVEN GIFT
The work complements previous restoration of Big Spring Creek in the Brewery Flats area upstream from Lewistown that occurred in the late 1990s, which was popular with residents, anglers, floaters, walkers and birders, Smith said.
Machler first started thinking about doing something about the damaged creek in 1994 when he bought the property for his uncle George’s widow at the suggestion of his father, John, George’s brother, who helped out in the stream straightening.
“That’s when Dad said, ‘Maybe we should try to do something about that,'” Mark Machler said.
John Machler died in 2002. George Machler died in the early 1980s.
“I thought we both were going to be dead before it was over,” said Sheila Machler, Mark’s wife, of the long process it took to get the creek restored.
In 2006, the Machlers and FWP agreed to a conservation easement to get the process going.
The easement prevents construction on their property or subdivision.
“This will always be a green space,” Mark Machler said.
Under the easement, public access is allowed.
FWP purchased the easement for $225,000.
Ups and downs occurred during the process as a result of funding and permitting challenges and employee turnover in the state agencies involved with the project.
It took 15 years to orchestrate the $1.6 million in funding from state, federal, county, city and private organizations.
In 2015, Smith thought the project was ready to go out for bid only to learn that the estimated cost had increased by $500,000. He was beginning to think the project was cursed, and figured it was dead in the water.
Then the luck changed.
“The right people were involved at the right time who knew just the right people to talk to,” he said.
The bulk of the $500,000 in funding needed to begin the project came from the federal Water Resource Development Act and state environmental contingency funds.
FWP paid for $705,000 of the $1.6 million total cost.
“It took a lot of work from a lot of people,” Machler said.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provided in-kind services for the design and survey work which saved a lot of money, Smith said.
The local Snowy Mountain chapter of Trout Unlimited contributed $21,536, while the Machlers and landowners Steve and Susan Adams also provided grants they got from the NRCS.
The Fergus County Conservation District was involved in the initial planning and grant orchestration.
And the work wouldn’t have gotten done without the cooperation of Mountain Acres Trailer Park — the same trailer park that prompted the original stream altering, Machler said.
In September, Gov. Steve Bullock awarded five FWP personnel and a state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation employee the Montana’s Governor’s Award for Excellence for Big Spring Creek restoration work.
It was a battle restoring the creek, but it was worth it, Machler said.
“It’s really a God-given gift,” Machler said of the artesian spring called Big Spring that’s the source of the town’s water and Big Spring Creek.
All that remains to be completed in the restoration is a public parking lot.
It will be called the Machler Fishing Access Site.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com