HELENA - Float trips on the scenic and remote Smith River have become so popular that new rules are being considered, and the new rules have become controversial enough to extend the public comment period.
Floaters and the citizens who oversee the Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks are particularly worried about provisions that would make it harder to get repeat permits - and a new test plan to start requiring some folks to pack out human wsste.
The Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission has extended the comment period from 30 days to 45 days, giving those interested until Sept. 24 to weigh in. The board of citizens that manages the agency will then vote on final rules by November, in advance of the winter period when people who want to float the river begin applying for permits.
In recent years, more than 5,000 people have applied for a limited number of permits to float the river, most for the peak season, May 15 through July 15.
Many of the rules stay the same, although there is a proposed fee increase. Residents would pay $30 instead of $25 and nonresidents would pay $60 instead of $50, and the nonrefundable application fee is doubled to $10.
But the changes that are proposed prompted commissioners to extend the comment period.
One proposal calls for a one-year waiting period for successful permit winners for peak season to reapply for their next peak season float.
The measure is meeting some resistance from those who say it is particularly unfair to those who draw a permit, but then are forced to cancel due to weather or other reasons.
Roger Semler, assistant administrator for park operations, said the proposal to have floaters pack out human waste would apply to just one of 53 camping sites on the river corridor.
The initial aim would be to test the requirement at the new Deep Creek boat camp, although the agency says it has no plans to extend the requirement elsewhere.
Semler said there are products on the market that floaters could purchase in order to make the process easier, such as a water tight box with a seat and a gasket to make sure waste does not leak out during the rest of the float trip.
"It is far, far from mandating a mandatory pack-out along the whole river," he said.
Bruce Simon of Billings, an avid floater of the river, said he has been tracking the two-year development of the rules and thinks the fee increases are reasonable and will generated needed money to improve management - but strongly opposes the human waste pack-out.
Simon said he believes that the rule could extend to other camping spots in the future - and predicted it would be unpopular with the public and would ruin the high approval ratings most give the Smith River experience. He pointed out there is no evidence that human waste from latrines is seeping into the water.
"This is not what we should be doing for the citizens of Montana," he told the FWP commission last week.
Other proposed changes:
- A new so-called "super permit" lottery would be started. A person could buy an unlimited number of $5 tickets for a chance to win one available permit to float any date they wanted during the float season, instead of being restricted to specific days. It could be in addition to a regular permit received.
- A minimum age for permit applicants would be set at 12 years old. In 2009, 83 applicants were under that age.
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