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Suit seeks to end camping on gravel bar near Blankenship Bridge

by CHRIS PETERSON
Hungry Horse News | May 18, 2022 11:20 AM

A group of residents calling itself Friends of the Flathead River filed suit against the Forest Service on May 16, claiming the agency is violating the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, The Forest Service Organic Act and the Administrative Procedures Act for allowing people to camp unfettered on a gravel bar near the Blankenship Bridge.

The gravel bar once was a place where the occasional local set up camp for the night at the free access site on Forest Service land. During the pandemic, when many formal campgrounds were closed, the site became popular with tourists and Montanans alike.

Conducting an informal survey last month, Dan Diamond, a local Blankenship resident, counted 94 rock fire rings and campfire sites on the gravel bar.

And according to affidavits from Diamond and Paul Roper, another local resident, they have witnessed people dumping RV tanks into the river as well as washing dishes, defecating and throwing trash into the river. They have also witnessed between 50 and 70 campers a day at the site during the summer tourist season.

The site has no formal bathroom, though the Forest Service installed portable toilets in the past. Last June, a bus even got stuck in the river trying to access the gravel bar and had to be towed out.

As such, the camp violates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the suit argues.

“The Forest Service has failed to adequately monitor the overnight camping and excessive use of the gravel bar," it reads. "The Forest Service has failed to ensure the water quality of the Flathead River is not degraded, and has failed to prioritize water quality above recreation use as directed by the plan, by failing to manage the overnight use on the gravel bar. The Forest Service has failed to ensure the scenic and natural vistas are preserved by allowing dozens of motor vehicles, including large recreational vehicles, to overnight camp on the gravel bar for extended periods of time."

The river at the site is classified as “recreational” under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which gives land managers more latitude in use.

But things have gone too far, the suit argues. It quotes Hungry Horse/Glacier View District Ranger Rob Davies to that effect.

“It’s like Daytona Beach over spring break; this year is off the charts in terms of use and visitation at that gravel bar,” the suit claims Davies said at one point.

It also claims the Forest Service has been long delinquent in forming a Comprehensive River Management Plan, which is required under the law. That document has seen years of delays, though a draft is expected out this summer.

Davies, at a meeting with North Forkers earlier this year, said the plan would recommend the site be day use only.

But the Forest Service is still allowing camping there this summer, though the campgrounds that closed during the pandemic have since reopened.

Even so, the Forest Service isn’t following the existing management plan, which was crafted in 1980, the suit claims. That plan, in part, says “conservation of endangered and threatened species and their habitats will receive priority management with regard to facility development and recreation use,” according to the suit.

The river is home to endangered bull trout and a nearby stream that runs at the south end of the gravel bar is spawning habitat for native trout. Grizzly bears also frequent the river corridor.

The suit also maintains that such a large de facto campground with little oversight poses a fire risk not only to adjacent public lands, but to private lands as well.

“Directors and supporters of Friends witnessed illegal campfires during the Stage 1 fire restrictions in Summer of 2021, illegal fireworks and gunfire, illegal firewood cutting, and complete disregard for wildfire safety,” the suit claims.

The suit seeks, among other things, a temporary restraining order closing the site to overnight camping “pending release and implementation of the final Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Flathead River.”

While a draft is due out this summer, the final plan could still take months after that to complete.

The Forest Service could not be immediately reached for comment on the suit.

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