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Suit looks to shut down Blankenship camp

| May 18, 2022 7:55 AM

By CHRIS PETERSON

Hungry Horse News

A group of concerned residents calling itself Friends of the Flathead River filed suit against the Forest Service May 16 claiming the agency is violating the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, The Forest Service Organic Act and the Administrative Procedures Act for allowing people to camp unfettered on a gravel bar along the Flathead River near the Blankenship Bridge.

The gravel bar used to be a place where the occasional local set up camp for the night at the free access site on Forest Service land.

But during the pandemic when many formal campgrounds were closed, the site became popular with tourists and Montanans alike.

During a survey last month, Dan Diamond, a local Blankenship resident, counted 94 rock fire rings and campfire sites on the gravel bar.

Additionally, according to affidavits from Diamond and Paul Roper, another local resident, they have witnessed people dumping their RV tanks into the river, washing dishes in the river, defecating into the river and throwing trash into the river. They have also witnessed between 50 and 70 campers a day at the site during the summer tourist season.

The site has no formal bathroom, though the Forest Service has put in portable toilets in the past.

Last June, a bus, trying to access the gravel bar, even got stuck in the river and had to be towed out.

As such, the camp violates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the suit maintains.

“The Forest Service has failed to adequately monitor the overnight camping and excessive use of the gravel bar. The Forest Service has failed to ensure the water quality of the Flathead River is not degraded, and has failed to prioritize water quality above recreation use as directed by the plan, by failing to manage the overnight use on the gravel bar. The Forest Service has failed to ensure the scenic and natural vistas are preserved by allowing dozens of motor vehicles, including large recreational vehicles, to overnight camp on the gravel bar for extended periods of time,” the suit claims.

The river at the site is classified as “recreational” under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which gives land managers more latitude in use.

But things have gone too far, the suit maintains. It quotes Hungry Horse/Glacier View District Ranger Rob Davies to that effect.

“It’s like Daytona Beach over spring break; this year is off the charts in terms of use and visitation at that gravel bar,” the suit claims Davies said at one point.

It also claims the Forest Service has been long delinquent in forming a Comprehensive River Management Plan, which is required under the law. That plan has seen years of delays, though a draft of the plan is expected out this summer.

Davies at a meeting with North Forkers earlier this year said the plan would recommend the site be day use only in the new river plan.

But the Forest Service is still allowing camping there this summer, even though the campgrounds that closed during the pandemic have since reopened.

Even so, the Forest Service isn’t following the existing management plan, which was crafted in 1980, the suit claims.

That plan, in part, says “conservation of endangered and threatened species and their habitats will receive priority management with regard to facility development and recreation use,” the suit claims.

The river is home to endangered bull trout and a nearby stream that runs at the south end of the gravel bar is spawning habitat for native trout. Grizzly bears also frequent the river corridor.

The suit also maintains that such a large de facto campground with little oversight poses a fire risk not only to adjacent public lands, but to private lands as well.

“Directors and supporters of Friends witnessed illegal campfires during the Stage 1 fire restrictions in Summer of 2021, illegal fireworks and gunfire, illegal firewood cutting, and complete disregard for wildfire safety,” the suit claims.

The suit seeks, among other things, a temporary restraining order closing the site to overnight camping “pending release and implementation of the final Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Flathead River.”

While a draft is due out this summer, the final plan could still take months after that to complete.

The Forest Service could not be immediately reached for comment on the suit.

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