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Forest Service to continue free camping on river at Blankenship

by CHRIS PETERSON
Hungry Horse News | May 10, 2021 10:56 AM

The U.S. Forest Service said Monday it will continue to allow dispersed camping at a gravel bar along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River this summer at Blankenship, despite a neighbor petition with more than 200 signatures opposing it.

In a news release, the Forest Service said staff from the Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District "observed large numbers of campers at Blankenship southwest last year and listened to concerns from the public about this use."

The Forest Service said it "did not observe levels of permanent or irreversible resource damage associated with camping that would warrant emergency actions such as changing access or closing it to camping at this time. Additionally, contacts made at the site throughout last season generally reflected a positive experience from users. This summer, we will provide portable toilets, maintain signs to educate users of regulations, and patrol the area for resource damage and compliance."

Earlier this year, Blankenship residents petitioned the Forest Service to close down the camp, which requires no fee but has a three-night stay limit.

"The risk of catastrophic wildfire emanating from illegal campfires and fireworks of overnight campers, as well as the difficulty of an effective response by a fire department to a wildfire, mandate this request," the neighbors said in an online petition. "In addition, the overnight camping has resulted in large amounts of human waste washing into the Flathead River and Flathead Lake each spring. The current use of this Wild and Scenic River site for camping is a serious threat to our forest, homes and properties."

As many as 40 to 50 campers were at the site nightly last summer. Many neighbors also saw the camping as contrary to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele saw it differently.

"Last year the Flathead National Forest was privileged to provide the public a great place for outdoor recreation, and we are excited to provide that diversity of opportunity again this year," Steele said in a statement. "As a public agency, our job is to provide for a diverse range of recreational opportunity for the American people that want to enjoy their outdoors, including those underrepresented, nature-deprived communities. While I understand the increased use we are seeing across the Forest is a difficult change for some people, I believe any chance we can connect the American people to the outdoors on their public lands is positive.

"Our recreational staff are working hard to find ways to provide and encourage safe opportunities for recreational users in as a sustainable way as possible," he continued. "We are fortunate here on the Flathead National Forest that we have areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex that can provide people solitude if they are seeking it, to areas in our front-country like Blankenship where we should expect to see more concentrated public use. I ask that people respect all the legal uses that provide users from all walks of life the unique, diverse recreational experiences they deserve."

Steele also noted that long-term management of the Blankenship site and all segments of the Three Forks of the Flathead Wild and Scenic River are currently under review in the Flathead Comprehensive River Management Plan.

That plan hasn't seen much work since 2019 after it ran out of funding. More funding has been secured, however, and more public meetings and debate are expected to take place this fall when a draft plan is expected to be released.