A large crowd of passionate users of the Flathead River’s three forks turned out Tuesday for the first of what promises to be a long string of meetings to develop a new comprehensive river management plan.
The plan will encompass the wild and scenic sections of the North, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead.
It does not include the mainstem of the Flathead, the Hungry Horse Reservoir or the South Fork below the Hungry Horse Dam.
Those sections of the river are not designated as wild and scenic.
There is a management plan for the forks currently in place — but it’s dated. The first management plan was developed in 1980 and the recreation plan in 1986. Since then, the valley’s population has grown to more than 100,000 and more than 3 million people have been turning the gates at Glacier National Park in the past couple of years.
That all adds up to more crowds and more impacts on the 219 miles of rivers of the Flathead in the wild and scenic system.
“The amount of people on our rivers is growing,” said longtime North Forker Lynn Ogle. “They leave debris of all sorts.”
But will the plan lead to a permit system or some other quota system to ease crowding?
“Today, we’re not ready to answer that question,” said Forest Service staff officer Gary Danczyk after the meeting. He noted that it was a “slippery slope” when agencies start saying who can and can’t use a river.
The only highly regulated river in Montana is the Smith River — people have to have a permit to float its most scenic stretches. But those stretches also run through private property. The Flathead’s forks largely run through public lands, with the exception of the upper North Fork’s western boundary, which is largely private land.
Stakeholders also had a host of other concerns that ranged from the threat of an oils spill if a train were to derail, to dust from the North Fork Road to political meddling in the entire process.
The current water quality was also a concern. Columbia Falls resident Jack Rogers said he’s been floating the North Fork for 50 years and is seeing slime and algae he hasn’t seen before.
“The people in the valley that use those rivers, in using them, are compounding the problem,” he noted.
The plan, at least for the North and Middle Forks will be a joint venture with the Forest Service and Park Service on the north of Middle Forks. The South Fork is surrounded by the Flathead National Forest. The process is expected to take three years and will be a collaborative effort, much like the recent Flathead National Forest plan.
“We’d like to have as many people involved as we can,” Danczyk said.
The Forest Service has hired Hydro Solutions to run the meetings, headed up by biologist Leanne Raulson. Monitoring of crowds has already begun — researchers from the University of Montana put up camera counters on the rivers last year and will do it again this year as well.
The cameras don’t identify faces.
Several members of the crowd said they needed data to make informed decisions and noted there have been past studies that should be available. Officials said there is data — but it’s in raw form. Once analyzed, it would be made available.
More meetings are on tap for this spring. The initial meeting was just to gauge interest.
Updates will be made available at the Flathead National Forest website at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/flathead and its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/discovertheflathead/