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River volunteers rally to protect Flathead forks

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Flathead River grant

A group of people floats the North Fork of the Flathead River in 2020. The Flathead Rivers Alliance was granted $103,000 in funding and partnerships to launch a river ambassadors program in 2022.

With use and abuse steadily climbing on all three forks of the Flathead River, a group of volunteers has grown its capacity to steward the popular waterways.

The Flathead Rivers Alliance landed $103,000 in grants and partnerships to launch a river ambassadors program in 2022. The project aims to monitor the amount of floating use the river forks receive, educate visitors on river etiquette, improve handicapped access to river put-ins, and monitor water quality.

It will also help coordinate public participation in a new Comprehensive River Management Plan currently under development with the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park.

“We’re operating with a (management plan) from the 1980s, and clearly it’s not valid now,” said Sheena Pate, watershed coordinator for the Flathead Rivers Alliance.

“There has been a drastic increase in users of all three forks of the Flathead," Pate added. "It’s not just at the easy-to-use put-ins. We’ve seen a big uptick of outfitters, and even in the backcountry, people are hiking in with pack rafts and getting out that way. Also, we have lots of visitors and new residents who want to participate but don’t know the how-tos and ethics of being on the water.”

The three forks of the Flathead got federal Wild and Scenic River designation in 1976. That resulted in a management plan completed in 1980 that set standards for 219 miles of waterway. The Flathead forks feature all three levels of WSR oversight: wild, scenic and recreational. For example, parts of the South Fork deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness qualify as “wild,” while the Middle Fork’s popular whitewater corridor along Highway 2 is considered “recreational.” The North Fork has extensive rural road access along the western border of Glacier Park and falls in the “scenic” category.

A draft of a new comprehensive management plan was released in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed much of its completion. Now Forest Service and NPS officials plan to restart the public comment and review in spring 2022.

The plan has two purposes. First, it identifies the things and values that justified the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation, like wildlife populations, scenic vistas, recreational opportunities and historic or archaeological features. And second, it sets management guidelines to protect those things and values.

That could range from increased staffing of river rangers to the possibility of imposing permits for floating popular reaches.

Volunteer efforts have already made significant progress, Pate said. In its first year, Flathead River Alliance held education workshops for 40 river guides, organized trash cleanups, and started work with other partners designing better river access facilities for people with disabilities. It also deployed more than 80 volunteers at pop-up information booths at popular river access sites to increase awareness of river etiquette and activity.

“When this all came together, there was a lot of energy that propelled us to become a formal nonprofit,” Pate said. “Now it represents the whole spectrum of stakeholders and users of river, from the shore, to hiking, to rafting, backcountry, recreational whitewater, and scenic floating.”

More information on the Flathead Wild & Scenic River Comprehensive River Management Plan can be found at fs.usda.gov/goto/flathead/crmp.

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