The future of a 34-year-old public access agreement between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and Blackfoot River property owners has remained uncertain for most of the year. But FWP finally met residents halfway July 14 by approving their request for an annual option to cancel the agreement if their written concerns over poor recreation management aren't adequately addressed.
"We got a pretty reasonable agreement," says landowner Jerry O'Connell. "Not perfect, but good."
The final agreement now circulating for landowner signatures is the fifth version to emerge from ongoing renewal discussions since mid-April. O'Connell says previous drafts submitted to FWP came back to landowners with unacceptable word changes or entire stipulations stripped out. He's still worried the Blackfoot River Recreation Management Plan takes precedence over the agreement.
"We wanted to make sure that the agreement was consistent with the overarching umbrella document of the Blackfoot Plan that was adopted earlier this year," FWP Park Manager Lee Bastian says of the delays. "We were just making sure the corridor agreement fell within those guidelines and was within the scope of that plan."
The push for approval came in early July as activity on the Blackfoot began to pick up. Landowners noted an increase in recreational activity on upper reaches of the river well above previous years.
"We'd normally see maybe one or two inner tubers maybe in August," O'Connell says. "Now we saw 30 or 40 of them in the first 10 days of July...That is basically seeing what we feared, that the Whittaker Bridge and downstream style of social recreation has moved up at least to Roundup."
There's been a considerable increase in the "idiot level" of river users this year too, O'Connell says. He remembers an evening in mid-July when five people and three dogs exited the river on his property near Ninemile Prairie and approached his house.
"They asked, 'Are we near Johnsrud yet?'" O'Connell recalls. "You're 14 miles short of Johnsrud, dude."
O'Connell adds he ended up driving the group back to their vehicle. It was 8:30 p.m., he says, and all of them were shivering.