Power tools or pack mules: Wilderness dam destruction debated

What’s the right way to get rid of an old dam?

The city of Missoula, U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and wilderness advocates agree that the city-owned McKinley Lake dam high in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area north of Missoula should be breached. But Missoula-based nonprofit Wilderness Watch argues against the others that the work should be performed without the use of any motorized equipment or transportation. 

Morgan Valliant, ecosystems services superintendent for the city, walks along a trail bordering McKinley Lake in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area in 2021.


The dam’s spillway is severely eroded and the disused and failing earthen structure is a “significant hazard,” according to the Forest Service. The city partnered with TU to breach the dam next summer. The project could serve as a model for plans to similarly address three other defunct city-owned dams in the Rattlesnake Wilderness. The century-old McKinley Lake dam sits just north of Stuart Peak, about 10.5 miles northeast of downtown Missoula.

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