Flathead enters new chapter with drafting of management plan

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A fly fisherman casts into the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near the Blankenship Bridge recently. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

For as long as the Flathead has been part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system, Darwon Stoneman has benefited from it.

In the 1970s, Stoneman and some partners were searching the West for a good rafting business location, almost picking Alaska. But they first went to check out the Flathead River.

He remembers them deciding, “It’s got to be warmer here, the national park‘s got to be [offering] more potential for business here.” Glacier Raft Company was born.

It started full operations in 1977, the first rafting season after the Flathead was listed, with a permit to guide customers down the river — one of the regulatory tools that have preserved the Flathead’s three forks. This work has gotten more complex since Stoneman opened shop. In the 1980s, the Forest Service adopted a river management plan and recreation guidelines for the corridor.

After three decades, the agency is now starting to prepare a new comprehensive river management plan, and seeking the input of outfitters, conservationists and others who value the corridor. Already, the challenge of meeting their goals and the river’s needs is becoming clear.

Part of that challenge is the success of tour operators like Stoneman. “In 1977, we took 500 people down the river” in the entire season, he remembers. “We take that many in some days now.”

“There’s been a huge increase in the amount of use.” Glacier National Park, which the Flathead borders on two sides, has seen travel steadily climb in recent years, setting a new visitation record in 2017. The park, working with Flathead National Forest and the University of Montana, only started tracking river usage last year, but the initial results are high. The busiest monitoring site, at Moccasin Creek, logged an average of 90 boats per day from May to September.

Stoneman said they’re clogging the river’s access points. “They’re totally full on the weekends. People are parking on the roads...I’ve literally seen fistfights between people jockeying for position.”

Concerns about crowding were clear at a March 6 meeting in Columbia Falls, which the Forest Service held to begin the planning process. Attendees voiced concern about the rise in visitors to the corridor, the need to count them more thoroughly, and the waste they carried and fires they made.

Forest Service staff pledged to incorporate their concerns into the planning process. But Forest Service staff officer Gary Danczyk wasn’t keen on restricting usage.

“It’s a real slippery slope when you start talking about limiting who gets to use the river,” he said. “That is a real dangerous topic.”

“We all love the river, and we all want to use the river.”

One of the gravest threats isn’t on the river, but alongside it. Oil train traffic along the Middle Fork earned the Flathead a spot on a list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” last year. The prospect of a spill has Stoneman concerned enough to buy business-interruption insurance.

While the tracks’ owner, BNSF Railway, insists the line is safe, several attendees at Tuesday’s meeting pressed the Forest Service on how it would protect the river from an oil spill.

“We do not control what goes up and down that Burlington Northern line,” Danczyk explained. “They have a mitigation plan, [and] they certainly have the eyes of the nation on them.” The railroad, he and other Forest Service employees stressed, would be involved in the drafting process.

There’s a tight schedule for addressing these concerns, and the many others raised at the meeting. The Forest Service aims to complete the new plan in three years – an ambitious goal in the world of public land management. The Flathead National Forest Plan is now nearing completion after four years of negotiations, and may still face litigation from environmental groups.

The Comprehensive River Management Plan, when complete, will be an amendment to the Flathead Plan. The former is “less complicated,” Danczyk said. “It’s more narrowly defined.”

He said the Forest Service is starting with a “big tent” approach. “If we get so big that this is completely unwieldy and we can’t make any progress, then we might have to look at a different approach, but I think we’d like to have as many people involved and as many points of view involved as we can.”

Americans have been having these discussions around Wild and Scenic Rivers for 50 years. The law has roots in the Flathead, where biologist John Craighead traveled in 1957 and concluded that a fast-growing nation needed to preserve some of its waterways.

After four decades on the river, Stoneman’s eager to carry on that legacy.

“I think we’re all wanting to be good stewards of the river,” he said, “and we want to see it managed and used appropriately.”

To learn more about the planning process for the comprehensive river management plan, contact Flathead National Forest Recreation Program Manager Chris Prew at 758-3538.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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