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Limits on floating some stretches of the three forks of the Flathead River may be around the bend.

The Flathead National Forest in concert with Glacier National Park is updating its 1980s-era management plan for the 219-mile river, whose use is growing in popularity. Formally listed as a “Wild and Scenic River,” the three forks must be managed to maintain their diverse and intact ecosystems, as well as the values that make them unique.

But as more people float the rivers they’re in danger of losing their “Outstanding Remarkable Values” (ORV) and the Forest Service and national park representatives are in the early stages of looking at various ways to protect those values.

“We’re not ruling out a permit system as a potential management action, but we’re also not jumping right to there,” said Chris Prew, a recreation and wilderness program manager for the Flathead National Forest. “It will be important for us to identify capacity on the river and see how it’s impacting those ORVs.”

Management measures also could include limiting launches and trying to redistribute use, Prew added.

“I’m not saying we are going to do this, but we’re not ruling it out,” he said. “We are asking people to help us speak to the components of the plan and help us create a draft plan and an environmental assessment.”

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Working with researchers from the University of Montana, crews set up 13 monitoring cameras at various segments of the Flathead River during the 2017 and 2018 float season to document existing uses. In 2018 the site with the highest average boat passing by per day was on the Middle Fork at Moccasin Creek, with about 73 crafts and 449 people per day, for a total of 8,356 crafts and 51,179 people during the monitoring period. Mid Creek on the South Fork was lowest, with almost three crafts per day and 3.74 people in 2018, and a total of 72 crafts and 269 people.

“The river exists in the context of rapid social and environmental change,” the six researchers from the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation wrote in their executive summary for the monitoring. “There has been a large increase in the number of visitors to Glacier National Park over the last few years … (and the population of the region surrounding the river is also increasing at a rapid rate.

“More people could mean more river corridor users and increased use. Additionally, there are new types of users in the corridor. Crafts are becoming more affordable and lighter weight, and many recreationists do not need a guide to help them down the river. As a result, the Flathead River is experiencing more shore parties, dispersed camping, and extended seasons. This could affect peoples’ perceptions of crowding and may explain increased impacts along shores.”

Prew said they’ve already seen an increase in sedimentation in the river, which is associated with trails, ramps, launches, parking lots and campgrounds. But National Park Service monitoring of bacteria from fecal waste, commonly known as E.coli, isn’t showing elevated levels.

“But it’s something we want to be aware of and cognizant of. It’s a concern identified in scoping meetings so we want people to know we are monitoring for it and want to address it if it becomes a concern,” Prew said.

Corrective actions could include closing and rehabilitating unsustainable facilities and river access points while constructing new ones elsewhere to reduce sedimentation. To address the human waste issue, the forest could employ more frequent monitoring, require boaters to “pack it out” or service latrines more often in heavily used areas.

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