WEST GLACIER — It takes a pretty special river to make one forget the transcontinental railroad and highway on the left bank.

Although the freight train horns frequently echo off the mountainsides of Glacier National Park’s southern border, this Middle Fork of the Flathead River reach qualifies as a Wild and Scenic River. It also exemplifies the flexibility of the 50-year-old law that got its inspiration from these very waters.

“A lot of people think of this as ‘my Middle Fork’ without ever realizing the big picture that all these other rivers got protected because of the special rivers in their own backyard,” said Colter Pence, Flathead National Forest wilderness trails manager. “They know the river inside and out, but they don’t know about the Wild and Scenic designation.”

They will know a lot more soon as the Flathead Forest finishes updating its comprehensive river management plan, originally drafted in 1980. The new plan must absorb the massive increases in visitor traffic at the park and national forest, the evolution of ultra-light packrafts and the exploding popularity of fishing vacations, the presence of oil trains and the disappearance of kokanee salmon, and a flood of other topics that make the three forks of the Flathead River special.

To make matters really complicated, the northern Flathead has three forks with parts that qualify for all three of the law’s categories. The Middle and South forks headwaters sections in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex have “Wild” designations. The North Fork from the Canadian border south to Columbia Falls carries the “Scenic” label. And the Middle Fork where it separates the Bob Marshall from Glacier Park is “Recreational.”

Pence explained the distinctions aren’t aesthetic — the North Fork isn’t prettier than the Middle Fork. Instead, the categories measure how much access people have to the water. A floater needs a day or two of hard trail travel or an airplane to visit the Wild reaches of the Middle or South Forks (46.6 and 51.3 river miles respectively). The North Fork has no Wild miles, but has 40.7 Scenic miles due to its occasional proximity to the North Fork Road. The Middle Fork between Essex and West Glacier goes in the Recreational column because U.S. Highway 2 hugs its south bank for 54 miles.

And the law doesn’t spotlight only riverine features. For example, the Middle and South forks have several ethnographic hotspots with deep meaning in Salish, Kootenai, Blackfeet and other tribal cultures. Those who know what to look for can find ponderosa “scar trees” where generations of foragers pulled strips of sweet cambium bark off the trunks, or lithic scatters bearing the leftover chips from arrowhead knapping.

“It appears there was a lot more mixing of tribes in this area than was well documented,” said Mary Riddle, Glacier’s chief of planning and environmental compliance. “The Salish and Kootenai came east to hunt bison, and the Blackfeet came west for fish and vegetable resources. This was the crossing point.”

Glacier Park and the Flathead National Forest share the three-year task of listing all the three rivers’ outstanding resource values, or ORVs, for an updated management plan under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Near the end of the first year the two agencies are about to hand over their inventories and issues to a private contractor who will add more research and eventually publish a draft plan. It may touch on anything from the impact of growing numbers of float trips on the forest side to the difficulty of finding trailheads on the park side. It will also consider the water quality, health of the fisheries, economic development potential, geologic and biological highlights and historic elements.

That protection, and the law behind it, came in large part at the instigation of wildlife biologists and twin brothers John and Frank Craighead. In 1953, Hungry Horse Dam had just impounded more than 50 miles of the South Fork of the Flathead River into a reservoir when the brothers learned of plans for three more dams on the North and Middle forks. They leveraged their national popularity as National Geographic Magazine and television storytellers to raise interest in protecting the nation’s rivers from overdevelopment.

Their ideas followed the same flow of concern that led to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. However, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act took a little longer, finally passing in 1968.

“Remember, dam-building was really popular,” Riddle said. “It meant jobs and construction and cheap electricity. But sentiments were changing. Voices like (wildlife biologist) Olaus Murie and Howard Zahniser (author of the Wilderness Act) were saying we can build a dam everywhere, but what is the end result? And they were writing these letters in the (Kalispell) Daily Interlake. They didn’t want to see another national park flooded like Hetch Hetchy.”

The Flathead's Middle Fork flows over several sunken sections of railroad track — debris from a 1964 flood some residents thought could have been avoided if the proposed Spruce Park Dam had been built. On the other hand, cabin owners and anglers and hunters recalled what they lost under Hungry Horse Reservoir and fought to keep the same fate away from their watersheds.

Ironically, while the Flathead forks were the poster children for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, they weren’t included among the eight original rivers to be protected. It took another eight years for Congress to designate the three forks as nationally significant, along with the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River.

Until this year, no other Montana river has won similar protection. American Rivers outreach coordinator Kascie Herron hoped this year’s designation of 20 miles of East Rosebud Creek in the Beartooth Mountains might reignite that interest. The three-state area covered by U.S. Forest Service Region 1 has at least 65 rivers up for consideration, including Missoula’s Rattlesnake Creek, Rock Creek near Clinton and the Yaak River north of Libby.

“Everyone thinks about the Smith River and how it’s so special and you need a permit to float there, but it’s actually not protected,” Herron said. “And there are a lot of other rivers like that. Look at the gems we have here on the Flathead. Wild and Scenic designations had a lot to do with that. Why wouldn’t we want that for other rivers we love in Montana?”

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