Jim Crews and his hovercraft

Jim Crews measures the sound level on his 13-foot hovercraft at his home in Stevensville last week. Crews is petitioning Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to allow him to use the hovercraft on the Bitterroot River, though he is facing road blocks on the way.

Discussion of a petition asking that hovercrafts be allowed on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers won’t come before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission until February 2020.

Initially, the petition was slated to be heard during the commission’s Dec. 5 meeting in Helena. But based on the other agenda items, which include setting hunting seasons and hunting district boundaries, as well as quotas, commissioners sought to postpone the hovercraft discussion until their next meeting, which is Feb. 6 in Helena.

Becky Docktor, the chief legal counsel for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the commission asked her to talk to petitioner Jim Crews of Stevensville about postponing the petition hearing.

“Their agenda Thursday will take them way into the evening hours, so they’re paring the agenda back,” Docktor said on Monday. “It was more a logistical than substantive issue, and (Crews) was very gracious about it.”

The February meeting is the first time the commission holds a public session in 2020. Docktor said they could have held a telephonic hearing on the petition, but Crews wanted to be present to make his case personally.

On Monday, Crews said his request in February will be the same, adding that an article in Sunday’s Missoulian is generating support for his proposal.

“I received five calls already this morning,” he said. “They (the commission) need more time, and I’m willing to let them have it.”

Motorized boats are restricted on the Bitterroot and the section of the Clark Fork River that runs through Missoula, from Feb. 1 to Sept. 30. When they are allowed on those stretches from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31, they’re required to use motors that are 20 horsepower or less. The main reason for the rules, adopted in 2011, centers around the motors’ noise and potential conflicts among users.

In his petition, Crews asks that hovercrafts be exempted from the rule regarding horsepower because most hovercraft motors range from 29 to 100 horsepower, which is necessary to stay afloat. That power typically goes to twin engines, one of which provides lift on a cushion of air and the other engine powers the large fan on the back of the hovercraft.

But Crews' overall goal is broader. He wants anyone with hovercrafts to be able to take them on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers throughout the year, even if it’s only one day a week. He notes that hovercraft can be valuable in certain search and rescue situations, and they also could provide a new form of recreation for tourists.

“I’m a disabled vet and … I could maybe run a little tour service to take people out on boats. That gets me back in the work force,” Crews said. “I’m just at the beginning stage of this. It could be a job for me or other people.”

While he’s getting calls of support, others are opposing the proposal. The Clark Fork Coalition is concerned the hovercrafts could enter ecologically sensitive streams and other areas because they don’t need much water, and that they would increase conflicts when going upstream with people floating downstream.

FWP staff also recommend denial of the petition instead of putting it out for public comment because hovercrafts fall under the definition of a vessel propelled by machinery.

The Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited also weighed in with a letter to FWP Director Martha Williams, asking the commission to deny the petition because “hovercraft by definition is a motorboat and can be afforded no fewer restrictions than others under this category.”

“Any deviation from this rule allowing hovercraft use represents both a dangerous precedent as well as negates the public input that was gathered in the 2011 river recreation rule planning process,” chapter president Jeremy Anderson wrote. “… The majority of support was to restrict motorized use of the river with particular concerns of safety and noise. Our chapter does not approve of an exemption for hovercraft to the existing rules.”

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