Most river rafters oppose permits to float

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A private raft party hits the rapids of the Middle Fork of the Flathead in this file photo.

Most river enthusiasts say they oppose a permit system to float the forks of the Flathead River. About 60 people came out last week for an open house hosted by the Flathead National Forest on the draft Comprehensive River Plan for the 219 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers of the Flathead.

Passionate about floating, several river enthusiasts said they work hard all week long, and see a permit system as just another tax and a way to keep locals off the rivers they love.

“It (a permit system) is taking away opportunity away from locals,” said Malachi Apsey of Kalispell.

Apsey noted that local river floaters not only love their waters, they spend their hard-earned money in the valley and buy supplies and other materials locally. A permit system could make it more difficult for locals to float, they argue.

Susan Salmonsen, whose family owns property along the North Fork of the Flathead, agreed that locals should have priority of streams.

She said her family is paying property taxes on land they own near the North Fork and a permit system is the equivalent of the government saying “you can’t float it.”

Travis Keele of Columbia Falls sees a permit system as simply another tax.

“They’re exercising authority over something that doesn’t need to happen,” he said.

In the past few years, about 3 million visit Glacier National Park annually and the population of the Flathead Valley is growing as well, as the housing market has rebounded from the Great Recession. This has resulted in more floaters — in rafts, personal pontoon boats, drift boats, kayaks, canoes and on flatter water — paddleboards.

The Forest Service and Park Service are working together on the comprehensive plan. A draft proposed action was released a few weeks ago. It includes trigger points that could signal a coming permit system as rivers become more crowded.

So far, Forest officials aren’t saying much about how a potential permit system would work if one is implemented. But locals have seen how other permit systems have worked on other rivers in the state, and they’re admittedly worried.

On the Smith River, for example, the state runs a lottery system and getting a permit to float the coveted stream is difficult.

They say the same could happen here — locals will get shoved out of the picture as the permits actually make things worse, not better.

Many rafters said the crowds right now are tolerable, and even when the rivers are busy, folks get along.

“Even the hint of a permit process seems kind of ludicrous,” Keele said.

But not everyone was against the idea of permits. Resident Michele Colliander said she wouldn’t object to paying an annual fee, like a fishing license, to float the rivers.

Bob Jordan, the former owner of Wild River Adventures, also attended the meeting. He is no longer in the commercial outfitting business, but he did note that the current infrastructure, like launch sites, can get overloaded. For example, on the busiest days, finding a parking spot and Blankenship is difficult. He said he hoped that the planning process didn’t turn the public against commercial outfitting. In a later email, he suggested a citizen advisory group could be formed and local nonprofit groups could assist with raising funds to help facilitate staff that could handle crowding issues.

But things aren’t getting off on the right foot.

The crowd wasn’t happy with the way the Forest Service ran the meeting. They clearly wanted to vent some frustration, but the meeting was held in an open-house fashion, with different tables for different sections of the river system.

Still, many folks gave the Forest Service an earful, and took time to vent their displeasure with the agency.

The Forest Service noted the plan is still in draft form and no decisions have been made. They also noted that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires the agency to create a comprehensive plan.

“The intent is not to lock the rivers up,” said Leanne Roulson, of HydroSolutions, a Montana firm the Forest Service has retained to help formulate the plan.

But for many local floaters, they largely remain unconvinced.

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