There’s a band of rock that starts on one bank of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River west of Essex. It drops down underneath the current and rises up on the other side. Colter Pence says this is her favorite stretch of the Wild and Scenic River.
"It's like you're going underneath a rainbow," Pence says, "an upside-down rainbow."
Pence is a river and trails manager on the Flathead National Forest. She says further downstream, the colorful rocks in the riverbed sparkle underwater.
"Even people who see photos on social media will know it's the three forks of the Flathead when they see that colored cobble, and that's one of the outstandingly remarkable values for the three forks of the Flathead, the geologic feature with the proterozoic belt rocks," she says.
These distinctive features may seem eternal to the dozens of people who float by each day. But a lot is changing on the Flathead River, from the number of people splashing in it to the nutrients and contaminants cycling through it.
To address these changes, the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park are in the very first stages of drafting a new Comprehensive River Management Plan that will guide how the two agencies work together to preserve the unique aspects of this river system into the future. In many places, they each manage one side of the same river.
They’re hosting a series of public meetings this summer to hear what people think is important in this river system and how they want to see it managed. The two agencies will begin the formal comment and plan drafting process under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, this December. The entire plan is expected by the end of 2020.
The new plan will describe the river as it is now, set goals and desired conditions, determine user capacities and create a monitoring plan that both agencies will carry out into the future.
Chris Prew, recreation program manager on the Flathead National Forest says, "We're projecting 10-15 years from now what we want to see. It's challenging to say the least."
Prew says a lot has changed in the four decades since the Flathead was designated Wild and Scenic, from the number of people floating the river’s three forks to the populations of threatened and endangered wildlife the original plan was meant to support.
"Bald eagles were a threatened species at the time, so our plan focused heavily on protecting bald eagle nests and the areas around nests so eagles could feed on fish uninterrupted by the public," Prew says. "Grizzly bears are potentially going to be delisted here soon. So there are some changed conditions we're trying to take into account for the next 15 years."
Rob Davies, district ranger for the Hungry Horse-Glacier View District, says how people are using the river is different, too. Along with the traditional soft-sided raft, "now we're seeing drift boats, we're seeing paddle board. All types of kayaks. The availability of watercraft in this area is really exploding."
Indigo Scott adds that the river management plan won’t only look at how humans use the river. She’s a river ranger for the Flathead National Forest. She says management plans like these are meant to preserve a range of Outstanding Remarkable Values. That’s planning talk for fish and wildlife, water quality, scenery, cultural and historic sites, even those colorful cobbles at the bottom of the riverbed.
"Sometimes recreation, because it is such a human outstandingly remarkable value, gets privileged above the others," Scott says. "We can't forget about the wildlife or geology or any other value, because we're the ones benefiting from the recreational value."
Chris Prew says there are seven outstanding remarkable values on this section of the Middle Fork between West Glacier and the confluence with the North Fork. The Flathead’s Wild and Scenic River designation covers 219 miles and includes six distinct segments. Each has its own set of values.
"What experience are we managing for? That's the million dollar question for this," Prew says.
Rob Davies says that’s what makes managing this river so challenging and unique.
"There's a lot of variety and a lot of different thoughts about how much use is enough, and how much use is too much. And it's going to be really important to understand what the public feels about that," he says.
So far this summer, the public has weighed in on water quality, wildlife and cultural sites. Mostly the managers just listen, but they’ve addressed some of the comments already. At the water quality meeting in May, landowners along the North Fork’s scenic segment said they worried no one was monitoring for E. coli that they feared was a potential byproduct from the increased number of people camping along the river. Mary Riddle, planning director for Glacier National Park, says the Park will have updated sampling data by the end of the summer.
"We'll get some baseline samples but it hasn't been sampled before to our knowledge," Riddle says.
The next public meeting is tonight (Wed. 8/29) at 6 at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell and will focus on fisheries. A meeting in September will cover geology and botany. Another in October will tackle recreation.