Spotlight: Stream Cleaner


Seven years ago, Rich McIntyre fled what he considers an excessively urbanized Colorado and took up residence near Bozeman, Montana. He found in Montana the high-quality fishing streams and skiing conditions that he considers a necessary ingredient in the recipe for a quality environment. A good fly-fishing stream is a resource that McIntyre valued enough to pull up roots for, and he figured that there ought to be a way to make a living turning damaged streams into a fisherman's dream. So in 1978, he started Timberline Reclamations to tap that market.

McIntyre grew up in the environmental movement and considers himself an environmentalist, but he was puzzled by the animosity that had developed between that group and business. Believing that much of the conflict derived from a lack of understanding on both sides, he set up his company to make a business out of ecologically positive activity and then waited for the phone to ring. A year later, he finally got that call.

Armed with his degrees in music and marine biology, he turned a stream that had virtually no fish in it into an excellent fishing stream and his reputation began to grow. He gathered a staff made up of experts in different water-science disciplines. He developed techniques and tools specifically for transforming streams and rivers that have been damaged by dredging, channelization, and irrigation access into healthy, attractive homes for the natural inhabitants of American waterways—and attractive resources for that American figure known as the angler.

One of the tools developed by Timberline Reclamations is called the Siltsucker. It uses water jets to stir up the muck dumped in a stream, separates the water and silt from the gravel necessary for stream life, and pumps out the silt, which is deposited where it will do some good.

The results of reclamation are dramatic. On his first project—Golmeyer's Spring Creek, in Montana—McIntyre relocated a stream that had been channelized during the 1940s for agricultural purposes. Before his work, a survey turned up one fish in the entire stream. One year after completion of the project, a survey showed 168 fish over six inches long for every 1,000 feet. There was no restocking of the stream at all. Through natural migration of fish looking for a superior habitat, the stream's fish stock increased by several thousand percent.

McIntyre laughs about the reaction from the scientific community. "They said that we couldn't talk about thousands of percent increase when we started out with only one fish, but I say, 'Why the hell not?' " Results in his 65 other projects in 14 states have been impressive as well. Only one of his projects has failed, and that was because of an outside force that was unrelated to the part of the stream that Timberline was working on.

McIntyre's therapy for ailing streams is not cheap. He says the cost runs from $32,000 to $42,000 a mile, including preliminary studies and execution. But those who pay to have their streams healed do not need to be ecologists to appreciate the value of his services. Though it is certain that the rehabilitation of streams is a positive environmental action, both biologically and aesthetically, there are economic benefits as well. McIntyre positively gloats when pointing out how free markets take environmental concerns into the world of long-run cash benefits. He estimates that a healthy fishing stream can double or triple property values.

On another front, he does work for large concerns that must deal with local and federal regulations. A recent project of his made possible the building of a $1-million industrial park in Washington State that would not have met local environmental standards without Timberline's considerable upgrading of water resources in the area. In that case and in others like it, multimillion-dollar investments with the attendant jobs and profits would not even be possible without the net improvement of the local environments that Timberline provides.

"Ten years ago," McIntyre says, "Timberline Reclamations could not have existed. It was business against environmentalists. We owe a debt of gratitude to those in both areas with the foresight to break through the old bullshit and see that the two can work together." But McIntyre says he fights every day to overcome suspicion about his activities. Many environmentalists see him as a hired gun, working for big-money interests, and many government people see his activities as an infringement on their turf.

The business is becoming a major financial concern, and there is talk of going public with stock sales. McIntyre has even been traveling around Europe a good bit, but he says the continent has thousands of years of tradition to overcome while the United States has only hundreds. Still, there are Europeans who are very interested in his services. At 28, says McIntyre, he's "just a fingerling." He is truly an entrepreneur who may do more for the resolution of economic and environmental goals than he gets paid for, but he does understand the connection. "I consider myself an environmentalist who is also a businessman," he says. "I started Timberline in response to a market that seemed to be wide open. I couldn't believe that nobody else was doing it."

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.