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Wild and scenic: River plan update protects Flathead forks

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North Fork of the Flathead River

The North Fork of the Flathead River lives in two worlds, dividing Glacier National Park from the Flathead National Forest.

A lot of water has flown into the main stem of the Flathead River since its three tributaries got a thorough checkup.

That’s changing as the Flathead National Forest reworks the comprehensive river management plan first drafted in 1980. The North, South and Middle forks of the Flathead all bear federal Wild and Scenic River designations. But in the past 40 years, ultralight packrafts have replaced canoes, freight trains loaded with petroleum have increased, and tourist interest in floating the rivers has boomed.

“The old plan looked at use from the perspective of the floater,” said Chris Prew, Wild and Scenic River program manager for the Flathead National Forest. “But what about what a fisherman on shore sees? We want to make sure the new plan captures all kinds of use in the corridor, like the fisherman that sees 100 boats go by.”

A federal Wild and Scenic River designation signifies a segment of river that has outstanding values for recreation, scenery or wilderness character. It doesn’t provide the same level of preservation that the federal Wilderness Act gives to places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but it does obligate agencies to protect the things that make a designated river special.

Over the coming months, Flathead National Forest staff will hold half-a-dozen public workshops to identify what people love about the three rivers and where they want attention paid. The next meeting takes place June 20 in Kalispell, with a focus on wildlife in the 219 miles of river corridors.

Since the initial plan was written, a kokanee salmon fall spawning run that used to limit floating access has gone dead (after introduced lake trout in Flathead Lake wiped out the region’s kokanee salmon population). Grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem covering the three rivers may be delisted from Endangered Species Act protection this year, which could trigger other bear policy changes along the rivers.

Each of the three rivers has a sort-of split personality. The North Fork of the Flathead divides the Flathead Forest from Glacier National Park between the Canadian border and Columbia Falls, with very different management plans on either bank. The Forest Service follows Montana state law, which allows camping anywhere below the customary high water mark. But Glacier Park limits all camping in the park by permit, and has only one developed campground along the North Fork.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead rises deep in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but can be reached by remote airfield or outfitter pack strings. But it changes from wilderness status to recreational status when it leaves the Bob Marshall and crosses U.S. Highway 2 east of Essex. From there, it gets lots of day use by outfitters and floaters who can drive between access points on the highway.

Middle Fork Flathead

Floaters enjoy a quiet reach of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River that passes through the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The river was one of the inspirations for the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. 

The South Fork also starts in the wilderness, but then flows into Hungry Horse Reservoir. Part of its free-flowing section can only be reached by aircraft or trail, while part can be reached by a long dirt road around the reservoir.

Darwon Stoneman of Glacier Raft Co. has operated wilderness raft trips in the Bob Marshall since the 1970s. Today he said there are four companies directing trips on the Middle Fork, three on the North Fork and five on the South Fork.

“Many of the access points, especially on weekends, are getting overcrowded,” Stoneman said. “Blankenship (on the North Fork) and Moccasin Creek (on the Middle Fork) are seeing people parking on the highway and getting into traffic problems. The outfitters are restricted pretty heavily, but we don’t have any sort of figures on the amount of private use the rivers are getting.”

South Fork Flathead

A remote section of the South Fork of the Flathead River earned federal Wild and Scenic Rivers status in 1978.

The invention of one-person whitewater rafts weighing less than 10 pounds has revolutionized interest in the upper ends of the wilderness Flathead reaches since the original management plans got written. On the other hand, Prew said the old plan had lots of emphasis on canoeing, which he rarely sees on the rivers today. The old plan also had little attention paid to cultural resources like Native American archaeological sites or historic homestead buildings.

The Flathead forks have remarkable protection against a warming climate, Stoneman said, because they often connect to underground aquifers that keep their temperatures cool. Those underground connections also support huge insect communities that make the fishing popular. A significant petroleum leak saturating that underground environment would wreak havoc, he said.

“The oil trains are a major consideration and hazard,” Stoneman said. “The railroad doesn’t want to have a disaster any more than anyone else, but the only way to have containment is to keep the oil in the cars.”