A permit to float the upper North Fork?

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An angler fishes the North Fork of the Flathead in this file photo.

The Flathead National Forest is eyeing the prospect of the possibility of a permit system or other crowd controls for the scenic section of the North Fork of the Flathead River. The scenic section, as defined under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, runs from the border with Canada to the Camas Bridge.

The Forest Service, in cooperation with the Park Service, are working on a comprehensive river management plan for the three forks of the Flathead River. Some 219 miles of the river system are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. But as more and more people come to the Flathead Valley, the rivers are becoming more crowded.

Glacier National Park over the past three summers has seen more than or just under 3 million people each year.

It’s beginning to take a toll on the rivers, which, outside of popular whitewater reaches of the Middle Fork, used to have miles of relatively light use.

“We may have to initiate some immediate management actions,” Rob Davies, Hungry Horse/Glacier View District Ranger told the crowd at the North Fork Interlocal meeting last week. That could result in a permit system or parking restrictions, he noted.

The Forest Service is expected to release a proposed action sometime in April. In addition, it will also release data beforehand that examines usage on all three forks of the river.

Researchers from the University of Montana in 2017 used remote counters to look at river usage on all three forks and expanded the effort in 2018. Davies said after the meeting the full report is not yet available, but will be before a proposed action is released.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead below Moccasin Creek is the most used section of river in the system by a wide margin, the 2017 study found.

All told, 5,411 watercraft floated the river below Moccasin Creek in the 60 days that the counter was up, the study found, with an average of 867 floaters taking to the water per day in July and about 573 per day in August. On the busiest day, nearly 1,200 floated that section of the river.

The numbers make sense — the roughly 7.5 mile stretch from Moccasin to West Glacier is where the four raft companies in West Glacier take the bulk of their clients in the summer months. The lower Middle Fork is also a popular spot for raft companies as well, where as families and guides float that stretch for scenic, but less adventurous, beauty.

But the commercial outfitters run shuttles, which eases parking problems. I

n the North Fork, commercial use is far less, but use by private parties is very popular. Also, the perspective of use from shoreline users is also a hot topic in the North Fork, where 35 miles of the waterfront abut private property on the west side of the river. The east side of the river is managed by Glacier National Park.

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