Agencies collaborate on new plan for three forks of Flathead

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  • Rafters recently float on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The three forks of the Flathead were designated at Wild and Scenic in 1978. (Scott Shindledecker photos/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Rafters fish along at section of the Middle Fork of the Flathead. The river is a stronghold for native westslope cutthroat trout.

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    A view looking down on the Flathead River.

  • Rafters recently float on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The three forks of the Flathead were designated at Wild and Scenic in 1978. (Scott Shindledecker photos/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Rafters fish along at section of the Middle Fork of the Flathead. The river is a stronghold for native westslope cutthroat trout.

  • 2

  • 3

    A view looking down on the Flathead River.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which had some of its beginnings here in the Flathead Valley.

While the occasion has been marked in the region earlier this year, to many the Act, signed into law Oct. 2, 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson, is not well known.

It originated out of a desire to prevent more dam building when that was prevalent across the country. While Hungry Horse Dam blocked a chunk of the South Fork with its completion in 1968, the Act ensured that similar plans wouldn’t occur on the other forks.

Recently, the Forest Service and Glacier National Park hosted a river float on the Middle Fork between the West Glacier launch and Blankenship to highlight some of the remarkable features.

Both agencies are currently working on a comprehensive plan for the three forks of the Flathead River. The last was done decades ago and only focused on floating the rivers.

The three forks of the Flathead were designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 1978. The designation encompasses the North Fork of the Flathead from the Canadian border to its confluence with the Middle Fork, the entire Middle Fork, and the South Fork from its headwaters to Hungry Horse Reservoir.

The North Fork and the lower Middle Fork form the boundaries between the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park. Portions of the Middle and South Forks flow through the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness Areas. A total of 219 miles of the Flathead River are included in the designation.

For Rob Davies, Hungry Horse district ranger, he has been in the area since 2013 after working all over the western United States, in Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Idaho.

While natural resources management is his business, he is river lover.

“I just love being on the river. Anything that may be bothering you, the flowing water just takes it all away,” he said.

Davies pointed out that the forks are a stronghold for native westslope cutthroat trout, that only exist in three percent of their historic range. Habitat loss, in part because of dam building, and the introduction of non-native fish, have left the beautifully-colored fish only remaining in the northwest U.S. as well as Alberta and British Columbia.

“The water is so pure, so cold, it doesn’t have the food that some rivers have and the fish don’t get as big, but the trout that live in these waters are really healthy and strong native fish,” Davies said.

One of the main things the Forest Service and Park are looking at is river usage.

As visitors to the park and the surrounding areas have increased, 3.3 million in 2017, and 1.6 million through the end of July this year, the number of people on the rivers has also increased.

Davies said one of the questions that is being asked is if there are areas where more people can be tolerated.

“We still want to provide very remote backcountry experiences, but we don’t want to limit access and we want to protect the different segments,” Davies said. “It’s a real balancing act, but that’s why we’re working on the new plan.”

There have been three public meetings held about the plan and there will be three more. The next one will deal with fisheries and is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, August 29.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker can be reached at (406) 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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