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County to pursue environmental review of the lower North Fork Road. That could lead to paving

Editor | February 13, 2023 12:30 PM

Flathead County will apply for federal funding in the coming weeks to do an environmental analysis for improving the lower end of the North Fork Road — a process that could ultimately determine whether the road is paved.

The county will seek Federal Lands Access Program monies to do a National Environmental Policy Act review of improving the road from just north of Glacier Rim to the Camas Road entrance to Glacier National Park.

County public works director Dave Prunty said at the North Fork Interlocal meeting Wednesday the county’s vision for the 10.6 miles of road is a 35 mph to 45 mph highway. Whether that’s paving, millings or improved gravel remains to be seen. He said he envisioned a road with pullouts and possibly an alignment that would slow traffic down.

“Not a (road) to get the Camas in the fastest manner possible,” he said.

Having said that, he said the county envisions a road with 12-foot lanes and 2-foot shoulders, If built to state standards, the Montana Department of Transportation has indicated it could take over maintenance, Prunty noted.

The road is currently a state highway through Columbia Falls to the end of the pavement. It’s a county road beyond that.

There’s about $19 million in FLAP grant funding statewide this year, so there’s no guarantees the project will get funded. The deadline to apply is March 31 and an answer would likely come in the fall.

Prunty said he envisioned a project that would do 2 to 3 miles at a time, as funding became available.

“I see it opening up more recreational opportunities on the lower river,” county commissioner Brad Abell said.

Abell claimed the county spends about $300,000 a year maintaining the North Fork Road to the border.

Glacier National Park superintendent Dave Roemer agreed that the Park Service wasn’t trying to get people to the Camas entrance faster. But having said that, the NEPA analysis would “get the temperature of the room,” either for or against improving the road, he told the crowd.

Reviews under NEPA typically look at several different alternatives and their impacts to fish and wildlife.

The Park Service recently upgraded the Camas Road and added a new entrance station at Fish Creek.

Whether or not to pave the lower end of the North Fork Road has been debated for decades. Many folks have long argued that paving would simply put even more people in the primitive North Fork, which is one of the most intact ecosystems in North America. It has a suite of endangered fish and animal species including grizzly bears, lynx and bull trout.

But others argue that the dust from the gravel road is even worse for the environment as it coats the vegetation and in the water, though that has never been quantified.

Paved or not, the North Fork has seen a tremendous surge in visitation over the past few years as visitation to Glacier National Park is averaging about 3 million visitors a year. The Flathead National Forest has also seen a significant jump in visitation as well as more people not only visit, but now live in Flathead County, and recreate there.

The section between Glacier Rim and the Camas Road has but a handful of permanent residents, as it’s mostly Forest Service land.

The City of Columbia Falls has supported paving the lower North Fork Road for several years now.

In the 1980s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a jeopardy opinion on paving, saying it could harm grizzly bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

But today many biologists and Gov. Greg Gianforte's Administration say grizzlies in the Glacier Park region have recovered and should be delisted. The USFWS recently announced it was reviewing the status of the grizzly in the region, a process that could take about a year to complete.

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