Saturday, June 22, 2024

A perennial problem: Campers stranded at Blankenship

Editor | June 7, 2024 7:25 AM

At least two campers are apparently stranded by high water at the Forest Service’s dispersed camping site along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River at Blankenship.

The Forest Service has since closed the site temporarily to public access, though when the Hungry Horse News stopped there on Thursday, vehicles could still be seen in the access road, which is partially flooded.

The water came up last week during spring runoff and flooded parts of the site, though not as badly as in previous years.

The site became a popular camping area during the pandemic and has stayed that way ever since, as it’s free for three nights and generally accessible by four-wheel drive and other high clearance vehicles.

Neighbors for years have argued the site should be day-use only and at one time even sued the Forest Service, though the suit was dismissed in federal court, as the agency continues to work on a Comprehensive River Management Plan for the three forks of the Flathead, which include the Middle Fork of the Flathead. A draft of that plan is due out this fall, the Forest Service has previously said.

The Middle Fork in that area is considered “Recreational” under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Some 219 miles of the Flathead River system are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Recreational designation identifies, “Those rivers or sections of rivers that are readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shoreline and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past,“ according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers official government website,

The Middle Fork has no impoundments, but at Blankenship there are two boat launch areas and a county park. None of them, however, allow overnight camping. The Forest Service is the outlier in that regard.

The website also notes a caveat to the “Recreational” designation of a river.

“This (Recreational) classification, however, does not imply that recreation is an outstandingly remarkable value or that the segment must be managed or developed for recreational activities,” it notes.

Flathead National Forest spokeswoman Kira Powell said that now that the area is officially closed, the campers will have to leave — when they can.

It typically reopens after the water drops. People getting stuck at the site has been a perennial problem — one year an old school bus that was converted to a camper got stuck in the river, much to the chagrin of neighbors.