Flathead Forest eyeing new river plan

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Rafters hit the Middle Fork in this file photo.

The Flathead National Forest has plans for a new Flathead River Wild and Scenic River plan, but it will probably take years to finalize new management policies for the three forks of the river, Hungry Horse/Glacier View district ranger Rob Davies said last week.

The plan will include updated standards for maximum river capacities and will designate launch points for half-day floats along the recreational stretches of the North, South, and Middle Forks of the Flathead River, Davies noted during a meeting of river stakeholders in Kalispell.

Crowds are a big issue for the Forest Service and Glacier National Park staff who manage the river. The standards for the ideal number of encounters on a river float — usually two to 10 per half-day float — haven’t changed since 1986. Rangers and volunteers monitor the North, Middle, and South forks during peak times in prime float season, and count the number of encounters on the water and on the shore. They also keep track of launch wait time. However, there’s no consequence or management plan for when the number of user encounters exceeds the standards, which are designed to measure the overall recreational experience.

Some users were unhappy standards haven’t been updated.

From any shoreline, they reported, they often see dozens of rafters or kayakers in a short period of time. Forest Service employees Colter Pence and Rich Owens responded that the standards are in place to ensure a great floating experience, not necessarily a great shore experience.

Education is their main defense if the standards are exceeded, they said. As of yet, there are no hard triggers in place to deal with congestion. Ultimately, if river use consistently increases, they may have to implement a self-registration or even a permit system, but they don’t want to go there, at least not yet.

“We’re getting closer consistently, and we’re getting very close,” Pence said.

Davies confirmed that the new plan will include new numbers for maximum capacity and describe how to manage overuse, but the plan will depend on public collaboration.

“You guys out on the river are very important as we write new standards,” he said to the group. “We’re not going to do it in a vacuum; we’re going to rely on your experience and what you say.”

On the immediate front, the Forest Service said a new outhouse will be installed at Glacier Rim in May.

Davies would like to see outhouses at every launch point.

“I’m definitely supportive of providing as much human waste containment as possible,” he said.

However, Davies noted that the “wild” and “scenic” river classifications, imposed by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, necessarily restrict human access to wild or scenic river regions, such as the stretch of the Middle Fork in the Great Bear Wilderness. Only in segments classified as recreational, like the North Fork segment south of the Camas Bridge, is more development allowed.

“More developments threaten the reason it’s called scenic,” Davies said.

Another problem for river runners is the changing boundaries of the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park. In 1910, when Glacier National Park was created, the high water mark of the Middle Fork and the middle of the North Fork were set as Glacier Park’s borders. In over 100 years, the river has changed considerably and consequently there are at least six parcels of land that have changed jurisdiction.

“You might think you’re out hunting on Forest land and you’re on Park land,” Forest Service Staff Officer Gary Danczyk said. “Apologies for those who’ve found themselves on the wrong side from 100 years of movement of the River.”

Danczyk confirmed that the Forest Service is trying to clarify the boundaries this spring, but noted it would take an act of Congress to change the actual boundary designations.

At the end of the meeting, several audience members suggested that better signs at river launch spots would streamline launching, and improve the river experience for both visitors and locals. Janette Turk, Forest Service spokesperson, reminded the public about the lack of funding for new projects.

“We’re relying on folks to step up,” she said. “We’re also looking for leaders to step up in the community.”

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