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Tube hatch on the Clark Fork

During hot summer days, Clark Fork River floaters pass Missoula's Madison Street Bridge on average once every minute, with a peak of 174 floaters in an hour on July 21, 2018. Managing this and other river topics is the goal of the volunteer organization Three Rivers Collaborative.

Members of the Three Rivers Collaborative knew they were onto something when they had to bring in a fourth table.

The gathering of people interested in improving Missoula’s Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot river opportunities last Thursday expected about a dozen participants. It drew more than two dozen and just as many topics needing attention.

The most obvious issue was management of the “tuber hatch” of summer floaters needing places to park, ways to get in and out of the water, and clean, safe fun. But there were also concerns about anglers in driftboats who’d like more boatramps that can handle trailers, or law enforcement agencies pondering how to address homeless campers on the riverbank. Then there’s the “who’s in charge here?” matter.

At the tables were Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists and Max Wave surfing advocates, Mountain Line bus representatives and University of Montana academics, city and county government officials, Clark Fork Coalition and American Rivers staff, local business owners and the Missoula Downtown Association, and members of Trout Unlimited, the Audubon Society and Five Valleys Land Trust. All pitched ideas and responses.

FWP Regional Supervisor Randy Arnold reassured everyone that coming to the meeting didn’t commit anyone’s agency or group to following the orders of another. There would need to be lots of cooperation and volunteering to, for example, set up a website that featured the interests of all involved.

A second thing they quickly agreed on: No workshops in July or August. As Pelah Hoyt of the land trust put it, “We all have better things to do then.”

That put pressure on getting lots done this winter and spring. It starts with a community open house on Feb. 21 designed to be as much a celebration of the rivers as an information-gathering function. Arnold suggested it avoid looking like a facilitated workshop. Instead, he envisioned a chance to let the community know what the rivers offered and how residents could get involved on issues that matter to them.

The Clark Fork River picks up the Blackfoot just east of the metropolitan area at Bonner where Milltown State Park has lots of public facilities. The Bitterroot River bounds Missoula’s southern edge before joining the Clark Fork at Kelly Island on the city’s west side.

Missoula Parks and Recreation conservation lands manager Morgan Valliant said one of the first tasks needs to be defining the term “facing the river.”

“It’s not just the view out your window,” Valliant said. It includes things like making river access part of a business plan, or considering how sewage might be kept from hurting water quality.

“There’s not one place where a wheelchair can access the river to fly-fish,” said KB Brown of Strongwater Surf Co. “This group should have been together 10 years ago. This is a manmade river corridor. It’s not Disneyland, even though it goes through downtown Missoula.”

The Clark Fork Coalition’s Karen Knudsen agreed, but added the rivers also needed to protect their wild aspects.

“There’s only one major city with a river that supports bull trout and cutthroat trout and bald eagles and great blue herons,” Knudsen said, adding that recreation and development ideas need to keep those qualities in mind.

“We built it and they came,” Trail Head owner Todd Frank said. “We’re way behind the 8-ball on this. There’s a lot of work to be done. That’s the power of this group.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.