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Feds say River Plan is back on track with new leadership

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | May 8, 2024 2:00 AM

The Comprehensive River Management Plan still has a pulse.

In a joint release Monday the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park said they expect a draft plan to be out this fall.

The plan will guide river management of 219 miles of the Wild and Scenic portions of the Flathead River into the future as the system sees more and more pressure from anglers, guides and private river users each year.

 “We are bringing on a new project leader who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in Wild and Scenic River planning” Rob Davies, Hungry Horse-Glacier District Ranger said in a release. “Our aim is a cohesive interdisciplinary, interagency team with aligned vision, working together on a plan for all the three forks, now and going into the future.” 

The new team leader, Mary Greenwood, has experience with river management plans from across the nation and joins us from the U.S. Forest Service Washington Office’s Wilderness, Wild and Scenic Rivers Program.

“The Comprehensive River Management Plan will protect and enhance the outstandingly remarkable values identified in the original Wild and Scenic designation (1976) and update the existing 1986 river management plan to maintain compliance with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, reflecting and accounting for the changes that have occurred since the Wild and Scenic designation, including visitor use patterns, environmental condition, Endangered Species Act species listing, and other laws that affect resources within the Wild and Scenic River corridor,” the Park Service and the Forest Service said in a release.

But the public has shown increasing frustration with the process, which started back in 2018 and has seen almost no real headway.

Critics claim the Forest Service has been permitting too many commercial trips on some sections of the rivers, most notably the Middle Fork near West Glacier, but outfitters and the agencies said they had to allow more floaters on the rivers as the pandemic brought a surge of visitors to the area. With reservations required to enter the Going-to-the-Sun Road, people needed something to do during the day until they could enter Glacier National Park without a reservation.

This year folks willing to drive over the St. Mary entrance don’t need a reservation during the peak summer months, which could ease up a bit on river demand, but only time will tell.

A new comprehensive river management plan could also mean permit requirements for some sections of rivers during peak usage times, some agency personnel have said previously.

One thing is for certain, river use is up.

The numbers bear that out. On the lower Middle Fork, defined as being from Paola Creek to the House of Mystery, from 2017 to 2020, commercial outfitters, on average, had about 55,250 permitted service days on that stretch of river.

The total number of service days is calculated by multiplying each service day by the number of clients on the trip, according to the Forest Service.

In 2021 that number shot up to 100,037 as the east half of Glacier National Park was closed due to the pandemic and the Park also instituted a reservation system for the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The number of outfitted days dropped the same stretch of river to 70,867 in 2022, but still remained well above the long-term average.

The lower North Fork, from Big Creek south, also saw a surge in outfitter numbers. In 2020, for example, there were 483 outfitter days, by 2022, the number was 1,410 — a 191% increase.

Those figures don’t include private rafters out for a weekend afternoon float which have also zoomed upwards as the population in the Flathead has increased and 3 million people visit Glacier National Park each summer.