The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has protected the North, Middle, and South Forks for almost half a century. As our population grows and more people look to these rivers for fun, questions arise about how best to preserve their unique values and wild qualities.
Wild & Scenic rivers have “outstandingly remarkable values” in a number of categories, including fisheries, scenery, water quality, and wildlife. An understaffed handful of river rangers patrol the three forks each summer, keeping an eye on all the factors that can negatively affect these values. (Us. We are the factor that can ruin the rivers.)
The 1940s and ’50s were a heyday of American hydroelectric enthusiasm.
In northwest Montana, the National Park Service and conservationists successfully fended off federal plans to dam the North Fork of the Flathead River at Glacier View, just south of where the Camas Road now meets the North Fork Road. If constructed, the Glacier View Dam would have created a reservoir extending almost all the way to the Canadian border and flooded over 10,000 acres of Glacier National Park, which the The Army Corps of Engineers justified by saying that it would “inconvenience but relatively few people as it is situated in a sparsely populated area.” A second North Fork dam was later proposed just north of Canyon Creek, but never gained much traction. The Corps successfully constructed the Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork in 1953, and within a few years they were readying their shovels to also dam the Middle Fork at Spruce Park, about 11 miles up the river from Essex.
John and Frank Craighead, well-respected wildlife biologists and twin brothers, had fallen in love with rivers while growing up outside Washington, D.C., where they canoed the Potomac with their father. During World War II, they taught survival skills to pilots and came home with yellow Navy surplus rafts, which they used to explore the rivers near Jackson, Wyoming, where they had moved after college. By the time the Army Corps of Engineers started drafting its plans for the Middle Fork, John Craighead had moved to Montana. He led the fight against the Spruce Park Dam, framing the conversation in terms of the much larger concept of the intrinsic value of wild rivers, as well as their increasing scarcity. As he said in an impassioned open letter in a 1957 issue of Montana Wildlife magazine:
“It is essential to preserve intact a few of the “wild” rivers of this region for recreation and education of future generations. Any outdoor pursuit which brings a man into intimate contact with natural scenery, natural forces, and the unaltered web of life is highly educational. The right to experience this should be as inalienable as freedom of worship. To preserve it is a trust falling to each succeeding generation.”
That intangible quality of solitude in the wilderness is what draws many of us to these rivers. It’s the difference in experience between hiking Avalanche Lake and Kintla Lake.
Don’t be That Guy on the river this summer.
Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t sink your beer cans in the river. (Seriously, people do this.) Don’t chuck your apple core in the bushes. (If it wouldn’t be cool for everyone to do it, it’s not cool for anyone to do it.) The river is a river, not a dumpster.
Let’s face it: You might have to poop. If nature calls, be prepared. Best practice (and required for overnights on the river): a portable toilet system or compostable bags. On a day trip, hit a pit toilet before you hit the river and have a couple wag bags (specialized setups with TP, puncture-resistant double bagging and a solidifying agent; available at local outdoor stores) just in case. Catholes aren’t a good idea: rain goes right through the rocky soil of the riverbanks and washes anything in it into the rivers.
Fires: Your kumbaya evening looks like a scar on the riverbank to the next camper. Best practice: build your fire in a fire pan or atop a fire blanket, and don’t pile on too much wood. Burn it all down to ashes and put it out completely, then scatter COLD ash and pack out any unburned debris. It’s okay to gather driftwood and other materials from the riverbanks for your campfire.
He and Frank conceptualized a river classification system designed to separate wild rivers from exploited ones, confining development to the rivers that had already lost their wild qualities. Their ideas gained support and ultimately led to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which protects portions of free-flowing American rivers that Congress deems as having “outstandingly remarkable values” in categories including fish, wildlife, plants, water quality, recreation, scenery, geology, and history.
The North, Middle, and South Forks of the Flathead River literally checked every box on the values assessment; Congress added the three tributaries to the act in 1976. Along with portions of the Missouri River and East Rosebud Creek near Yellowstone, 388 miles of Montana rivers now fall under the protection of the Wild and Scenic designation. That sounds pretty good, except that Montana has almost 170,000 miles of river. It’s the equivalent of taking the entire state of Montana and only setting aside one-fifth of Glacier Park as protected wild space.
Living in the valley, it’s easy to forget how privileged we are to have three pristine, protected waterways within a short drive of our front doors. It’s especially remarkable that this forward-thinking river protection plan was devised at a time when “playing on the river” wasn’t really even an idea among the general public. Lance Craighead, Frank’s son who now lives in Bozeman, recalls exploring the Snake River as a kid in Wyoming:
“There weren’t any canoers, there weren’t any drift boats, there was nobody else on the river,” he says, describing a solitude that’s almost impossible to envision now. Even in 1970, when National Geographic filmed a special called “Wild River” with the Craighead families on the Salmon River in Idaho, “there was nobody else on the river at all. There might have been one or two jet boats that went up the river, but we never saw anyone [floating or canoeing] in a two-week trip.”
Montana was no different. As Lance’s uncle John wrote back in 1957, “Recreational values of areas such as the Middle Fork are not readily recognized or evaluated at the present time, but there is little doubt that they will be proclaimed and placed at a premium in the future.” As thousands of people run the rapids on guided trips down the Middle Fork each week and the boat launches up the North Fork are packed-to-bursting on busy summer weekends, it’s safe to say that future has arrived. We are the generations the Craighead brothers envisioned saving the Flathead River for.
So how are we doing?
Well, if the goal of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was to preserve rivers in the undeveloped great outdoors so people could enjoy them, we’re nailing it. U.S. Forest Service data confirms what we all suspected from the anecdotes we’ve heard and experienced: river traffic is up across the forks. Last summer, the dispersed campsite at Great Northern Flats on the North Fork was as busy as a KOA; the gravel bar at Blankenship bridge, just past where the Middle Fork joins the North Fork, was like a never-ending spring break. Even the remote South Fork, where reaching the headwaters used to mean hauling boats and gear in on a pack string, has seen a significant uptick in float traffic in recent years, thanks to the development of lightweight pack rafts, one-person inflatable boats weighing less than 15 pounds.
But if the goal was to preserve the wildness of the rivers, and only enjoy them to the extent that we can without impacting their “outstandingly remarkable values,” the answers are a little more difficult. The Forest Service encouragingly hasn’t seen an increase in people literally trashing the river, with river rangers only finding a piece or two of garbage over stretches of many miles. According to Rob Davies, head ranger of the Flathead National Forest Hungry Horse-Glacier View District, the main impacts on the river itself aren’t beer cans or E. coli, but “more people, more noise, less solitude in some sections. The solitude is more of an emotional feeling that people have, so it’s hard to measure.”
Though not applicable to all sections of the forks—the whitewater section of the Middle Fork being one place where no one really anticipates peace and quiet—that intangible quality of solitude in the wilderness is what draws many of us to these rivers. It’s the difference in experience between hiking Avalanche Lake and Kintla Lake. We know we can’t reasonably expect to be the only people on the river, but we’d like to have moments of feeling that way.
The Comprehensive River Management Plan requires determining upper capacities for the forks, but what those limits will then mean hasn’t been decided. In other words: rumors of a permitting system are greatly exaggerated.
Davies adds that the protected wild and scenic corridor extends a quarter mile onto each side of the river, so most of the quantifiable negative impacts are happening around river camping. As the dispersed sites—places where camping is allowed, but without defined campsites—become more popular, they’re inadvertently enlarged, flattening vegetation. Campers also leave behind the remains of campfires, trash, and human waste, as many people are apparently unaware that they’re required to pack out their poop.
The Forest Service does have river rangers who patrol the forks. They count the boats and people, enforce the rules, pick up trash, and clean the pit toilets and camping areas. Managing the summer crowds on three separate rivers is a big job. Much bigger than the five or six people the budget allows. That’s right, just a handful of incredibly overstretched rangers are trying to cover all 219 wild and scenic miles.
“We could probably use three crews that size, one for each fork,” Davies says.
Even that doesn’t seem like it would scratch the surface of managing the rivers in July. So a newly formed nonprofit organization, the Flathead Rivers Alliance (F.R.A.), is stepping in to help. Focused solely on the North, Middle, and South Forks of the Flathead, they’re working in partnership with the agencies wherever they can, especially improving stewardship by educating river users. This summer, they’re also hoping to activate a crew of volunteer river ambassadors, which board member Flannery Coats envisions as “a big old smile at the put-ins, greeting people, managing traffic so you’re not waiting an hour and a half at the border to put your raft in.”
Coats explains that the Alliance officially incorporated in 2020, after the same faces started seeing each other over and over at the public meetings on updates to the Comprehensive River Management Plan for the three forks, a document that is exactly what its name indicates. They’re positioning themselves as the “cream filling” in the Oreo cookie of the rivers, bridging the communications gap between the agencies—the National Park Service also helps manage the Middle and North Fork, though the Forest Service is the lead agency—and the public. “The agencies are one wafer, the river users—which are a wide variety of types—are the other wafer, and F.R.A. is in the middle, making it stick together and sweet, so when you bite into it, it’s enjoyable,” Coats says.
What flavor that Oreo will be, however, is still up for debate. The river management plan hasn’t been modified since 1986, and rumors of what’s coming abound around the valley: float permits, regulated campgrounds, changing dispersed campsites to day use only areas. Chris Prew, recreation program manager for the Flathead National Forest, says that amendments to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act now require the plan to include upper capacities for all sections of the rivers, but what those capacities will then mean hasn’t been decided. In other words: rumors of a permitting system are greatly exaggerated.
Prew explains that part of revising the river plan is coming up with thresholds below the maximum capacity numbers that would trigger certain actions to slow river use in those sections. A theoretical example might be restricting boat launches to certain hours on busy summer weekends, though the agency has yet to decide what actual actions it will propose.
“We’ll start with other, lesser approaches before we take the extreme action of something like permits,” Prew says.
And we all still have the opportunity to weigh in. A draft of the updated river plan will be out later this year, with opportunities for public comment and revision before it’s finalized sometime around the summer of 2022.
“The public process is really important,” Davies says, emphasizing that it’s not too late to get educated and get involved. “If anyone has a passion or interest in sustaining the qualities of the river for the long term, public involvement this fall will be really important.”
Coats says she certainly doesn’t have the answers. “The obvious answer is ‘Permits, except for me,’” she jokes, putting words to how we all feel: Man, the rivers are getting crowded; we’ve gotta make sure they don’t get ruined. But not this summer—I already have two floats and a raft camping trip planned. Let the tourists get permits; I live here.
But conservation means to preserve and protect, even when it requires modifying our individual desires for the greater long-term good. Montanans of the past gave up cheaper electricity and riverfront property so that our generations could still experience true wilderness. Now it’s our turn to take a deep breath and make the choices that will ensure the North, Middle, and South Forks remain the treasures the Craigheads recognized all those years ago.
What Can I Do?
Sign up for updates on the Comprehensive River Management Plan, including upcoming public meetings, at www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/flathead. Scroll down to the link under “3 Forks of the Flathead Wild & Scenic River Comprehensive River Management Plan” to find the email signup.
Check out www.flatheadrivers.org to see what the Flathead Rivers Alliance is doing and how you can get involved.
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of USDA Forest Service and NPS.
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