Increase in river floaters could prompt permit requirement

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Floaters glide down the North Fork of the Flathead just above the Camas bridge recently. (Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News)

If the upward trend of visitors continues, federal land managers could implement a permit system to float the upper end of the North Fork of the Flathead River, Hungry Horse-Glacier View district ranger Rob Davies reiterated during a meeting with locals July 10.

Davies said the Forest Service will be releasing the proposed action for the new Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Wild and Scenic forks of the Flathead River in the next few days.

He told attendees at the North Fork Interlocal meeting that land managers would propose a permit system for the scenic portion of the river, which runs from the Canadian border to the Camas bridge if certain crowding thresholds are met.

The Forest Service and Park Service measure river use by the number of craft that float by on a given day.

The North Fork is bulging at the seams with visitors.

Glacier National Park ranger Regi Altop told the crowd that the daily average number of rafters in the summer months was 118 to 271 rafts per day, depending on the launch site, with the highest use from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Jurisdiction of the river is split — half is in Glacier National Park, the other half is largely Forest Service.

Car traffic in the North Fork is way up, too. The Polebridge entrance sees 250 cars a day, Altop said. Last year, 5,000 cars went to Kintla Lake during the summer months on an unimproved rutted dirt road.

Last year, the park implemented a 21-foot maximum length on Bowman and Kintla Lake roads. That length limit includes a trailer, which means that most towed units, save for some short campers on short cars, are now prohibited.

Davies was hesitant to get into details on the overall river plan, saying he wanted people to read the full text of the proposed action before coming to conclusions. A pair of public meetings on the action will be held in early August.

This is not the first time the Forest Service has said it’s considering a permit system for parts of the North Fork. The subject was also broached at an earlier Interlocal meeting.

The River Management Plan will set usage parameters on all 219 miles of the Flathead’s Wild and Scenic sections, which includes the North, South and Middle Forks.

Different sections of the rivers have different classifications under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. For example, the South and Middle forks in the wilderness boundary are considered wild.

Sections where there is more development, such as roads, are classified as recreational.

The upper North Fork is considered scenic and river managers want to keep it that way, meaning it will be managed in a semi-primitive state, Davies noted. That means bathrooms only at launch sites and other regulations, like prohibiting loud music on rafts and banning personal use of drones.

Some North Forkers want bathrooms placed at stopping points like Sondreson Meadow, but under the proposed action, that won’t happen.

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