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Forest Service decision on Blankenship camping shortsighted

| May 23, 2021 12:00 AM

The U.S. Forest Service recently made what seems like a hasty decision to continue dispersed camping on a gravel bar along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near the Blankenship Bridge.

It’s a popular camping site, and who wouldn’t want a chance to plop their tent or camper just feet away from one of the most scenic stretches of river anywhere?

Last summer hordes of campers descended on Blankenship, spurred by visitors and locals in search of some social distance during the pandemic. As many as 50 campers were at the site nightly last summer, and rangers from the Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District acknowledged they “observed large number of campers at Blankenship.”

It wasn’t long before a neighborhood petition with more than 200 signatures in opposition of continued dispersed camping was submitted to the Forest Service. Those in opposition have some valid points, perhaps the most crucial being a lack of adequate restroom facilities. Opponents claim the camping-gone-wild scenario has resulted in “large amounts of human waste washing into the Flathead River and Flathead Lake each spring.” They also pointed to illegal campfires and fireworks and the difficulty of firefighters being able to respond. The gravel bar is served by a substandard access road.

The opponents’ concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears, though. Two weeks ago the Forest Service said it will continue dispersed camping at Blankenship, and maintained 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.”

The agency promised to provide a few portable toilets this summer, patrol the area more often and put up educational signs.

Most would agree with Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele’s assertion that the agency’s “job is to provide for a diverse range of recreational opportunity for the American people that want to enjoy their outdoors.” But need we remind the Forest Service the Flathead River and its forks are among the 208 rivers protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System? That designation strives to preserve and safeguard these precious waters from over-use and development.

The long-term management of the Blankenship site and all segments of the three forks of the Flathead River — as part of the Wild and Scenic system — currently are under review in the Flathead Comprehensive River Management Plan. Public meetings and debate are expected to take place this fall when a draft plan is expected to be released.

Meanwhile, one of the busiest summers ever projected is bearing down on the Flathead Valley and nearby Glacier National Park. With the pandemic nearly in the rearview mirror, people are anxious to explore every nook and cranny this area has to offer.

We can only hope those Porta-Potties and educational signs will prevent any irreversible damage at Blankenship. What could possibly go wrong?