When the Dam Breaks
Mayor, hydrologist and entrepreneur John Muhlfeld ’95 on community resilience in Big Sky Country.
BY NATALIA ST. LAWRENCE ’16
Montana’s rolling prairies and snowcapped peaks may conjure an image of the lone cowboy and the rugged individualism of the mythic American West. But John Muhlfeld ’95, a hydrologist and the mayor of the city of Whitefish, says it takes a collective effort to protect the state’s natural splendor — and its values.
In late 2016, an online terror campaign came to Whitefish. After a seasonal resident and infamous white supremacist went viral for his Nazi salute to celebrate the election of President Donald Trump, locals spoke out. Neo-Nazis retaliated with a flood of online harassment, sending hate messages and death threats to Jewish residents and other community members. Tensions escalated as white nationalist groups announced an armed rally in Whitefish on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But the morning of the planned rally, Whitefish was instead filled with local counter-demonstrators. Muhlfeld, who has served as mayor since 2011, says the small city’s solidarity and its “swift,” “decisive” denunciation defused the situation. Beyond calling in law enforcement, the Whitefish community sought advice from the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Secure Community Network, and organized with the local anti-discrimination group Love Lives Here. Combatting hate “takes stepping forward to clearly articulate that those means of expression are not accepted and our community will stand up for what’s right for the dignity of all people,” Muhlfeld says.
In the following months, the city was singled out as “a national model of resistance” by Yahoo! News. The New York Times profiled Whitefish earlier this year in the article, “How a Small Town Silenced a Neo-Nazi Hate Campaign.” As local Rabbi Francine Green Roston told the Times, “If you asked [Whitefish leaders], ‘Do you think they’re going to show up?’ they were like, ‘Nah,’ but they had a full plan in place.”
For Muhlfeld, safeguarding the city from the most toxic human conduct extends to habitats around it. Beyond serving as Whitefish’s mayor, he is principal hydrologist and co-founder of River Design Group, a consulting firm specializing in river, floodplain and aquatic habitat restoration. RDG has executed some of the country’s largest dam removal projects and revitalized aquatic habitats that had been the sites of mining operations for centuries. The company has restored hundreds of miles of river and acres of wetlands, removed 45 hydropower facilities to allow safe fish passage and mimic natural conditions, but its services are still urgently needed to roll back stresses on the region’s aquatic ecosystems. With projects like the ongoing Klamath Basin restoration, the largest dam removal in U.S. history, Muhlfeld says RDG is “working under the guide that we don’t have time for natural processes to recover habitats for endangered species. It takes intervention.”
These challenges shape his vision for Whitefish as a place that can sustain the wild beauty that draws people to visit and live in western Montana. Surrounded by mountains, lakes and rivers, it’s a gateway to Glacier National Park and one of the fastest growing regions in the state.
Under Muhlfeld’s leadership, Whitefish has adopted a sustainable tourism management plan that prioritizes environmental protection and preservation of the city’s idyllic character. Recently, he helped secure a 3,000-acre land conservation easement to protect Haskill Basin watershed; for more than a century, Muhlfeld explains, the basin had been the primary source of Whitefish’s drinking water, based on “little more than a handshake deal with the landowner, the largest private timber company in Montana.” He says through “hard work and partnerships with state, non-profit and federal agencies,” the city has formalized the easement and is now in the process of building The Whitefish Trail, a 50-mile system that will encircle the city and Whitefish Lake.
For Muhlfeld, these efforts to protect the great outdoors encapsulate what makes Montana so special: the will to preserve open spaces and manage monumental problems as a community.