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Tribute: Tom Henderson

Photo of the late Tom Henderson standing by Soda Butte Creek.
Tom Henderson evaluating Soda Butte Creek channel conditions in August of 2018, four years after the reclamation and clean-up of an adanboned mill near Cooke City, Montana.

NPS Photo - A. Ray

Tom Henderson, a friend and colleague of Yellowstone National Park, passed away unexpectedly in October 2018. Tom was a devoted husband and father and a Senior Environmental Project Manager with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Abandoned Mine Lands Program. Many in Yellowstone worked with and knew Tom for his leadership role in the reclamation and clean-up of the abandoned McLaren Mill and Tailings site on Soda Butte Creek (see “Recovery of Soda Butte Creek, Post-Reclamation,” Yellowstone Science Issue 26-1).

The abandoned mill and tailings site near Cooke City, Montana contaminated reaches of Soda Butte Creek for nearly eight decades. Until recently, Soda Butte Creek was the only water quality impaired waterbody entering Yellowstone National Park and posed a serious threat to downstream waters and riparian habitats. With the understanding that the constant release of heavy metal-contaminated water from the abandoned mill site was damaging Soda Butte Creek and threatening Yellowstone National Park, Tom literally spent his summers between 2010 and 2014 travelling weekly from Helena to Cooke City to lead the clean-up efforts there. For that, the Yellowstone family is forever grateful.

Tom’s personal sacrifice did not go unnoticed and his professional contributions were vital to the success of the clean-up of the abandoned mill and tailings site. Because of the overwhelming success of this clean-up effort, the Montana DEQ was awarded the American Council of Engineering Companies Engineering Excellence Award in 2015. In 2016, the cleanup project earned the first-ever National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs award for environmental cleanup. Last year, Tom received a recognition letter from former Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk for his leadership role and extraordinary achievement associated with the cleanup on Soda Butte Creek. And Tom was just awarded the 2019 Montana Watershed Coordination Council’s Watershed Stewardship Award for his influential work on Soda Butte Creek and around Montana.

Tom’s work will forever be remembered as a catalyst for the ecological recovery of Soda Butte Creek. His efforts not only led to improvements in water quality, but Tom helped develop and execute a monitoring strategy that was used to formally quantify these improvements and measure the response of key biological indicators following the cleanup. Collectively, these efforts and the resulting data led to a determination by the Montana DEQ that metals in Soda Butte Creek now meet water quality standards. Soda Butte Creek has been removed from Montana’s Impaired Waters List. For the Montana DEQ and its project partners, this marks the first time in Montana history that a water body has been removed from the Impaired Waters List following the successful implementation of abandoned mine cleanup. More importantly, Tom’s work facilitated the establishment of a Yellowstone cutthroat trout stronghold in Soda Butte Creek.

Tom Henderson was a recognized leader in his field and an inspiration to those who knew him as a friend and colleague. Tom was keenly and ever-focused on the BIG picture and had the ability to sort through details and focus beyond the boundaries of the projects he managed. For those that knew Tom well, he was much more than a world class hydrogeologist. He was best known for his great loves—his family, music, educating others, and spending time in the mountains. Tom was an inspiration to all who knew him and he enjoyed his work and loved life to the fullest—he worked hard, laughed hard, and travelled regularly. Although he enjoyed spending time in the mountains around Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance, the stories he shared around the campfire or wood stove were those of his backcountry excursions with family. From the Bitterroots to the Dolomites, Tom was always preparing for the next experience with his beloved family.

Tom will be sorely missed by his National Park Service friends and colleagues, but his wonderful legacy will live on through his great work and passion for collaboration. To those readers who have not yet seen the restoration of the McLaren Mill and Tailings site (the fruits of Tom’s labor) just outside Cooke City, Montana, please consider stopping by during your next visit. The project was an overwhelming success and serves as a reminder of how one person can make a difference. Tom, through his clean-up work on Soda Butte Creek, single-handedly made Yellowstone National Park a better place.

- Andy Ray

Last updated: September 17, 2019