Public meeting on river use in March

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A rainbow up the North Fork of the Flathead.

Columbia Falls will host the first of several meetings on a new comprehensive river management plan for the three forks of the Flathead River.

The meeting is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. March 6 at the Cedar Creek Lodge Conference Room.

The Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park are embarking on a joint plan to track river use on the three forks of the Flathead, with the eventual goal of crafting management plans for the Wild and Scenic rivers.

The agencies have current plans — but they’re dated — going back to 1980 and 1986. Since then, visitor numbers to the region have surged, but the management plans have stayed untouched. In Glacier, more than 3 million visited the Park last year. In 1986, Glacier saw a little more than 1.5 million visitors.

One of the top complaints, river managers note, is the crowds on rivers.

Last year, researchers from the University of Montana did some preliminary surveys using remote cameras on the rivers. Similar work will happen this summer as well, noted Chris Prew, Flathead National Forest recreation program manager.

The three forks of the Flathead were designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1978 and are a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. It encompasses the North Fork of the Flathead from the Canadian border to its confluence with the Middle Fork, the entire Middle Fork, and the South Fork from its headwaters to Hungry Horse Reservoir. The North Fork and the lower Middle Fork form the boundaries between the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park. Portions of the Middle and South Forks flow through the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness Areas. A total of 219 miles of the Flathead River are included in the wild and scenic designation.

The Wild and Scenic River Act became law in 1968. It is intended to recognize that certain selected rivers of the nation possess outstanding, remarkable scenic, recreational geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values that shall be preserved in free flowing condition and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

Under the law, “scenic” sections are free of impoundments, are largely undeveloped and have some accessibility by road. “Wild” sections are accessible by trail only and are also free of impoundments and “recreational” sections are also free of impoundments but are accessible by road.

Prew said the hope with the meetings is to work with stakeholders in creating a new plan.

“We’d love to have some sort of collaborative effort,” he said.

The plan will begin a formal environmental review in the fall.

The new management plan will be coordinated by HydroSolutions Inc, a Helena engineering, water, and natural resource consulting firm, who was recently awarded the contract to complete the plan after a competitive bid process. Bids for the project were received and reviewed by the Flathead National Forest under an existing Region 1, USDA Forest Service Indefinite Delivery/ Indefinite Quantity contract. Work on the plan began in October 2017 and is scheduled for completion in 2020.

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