Blackfoot Valley residents have heard the same story from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) for decades: To better manage recreation on the Blackfoot River, the agency needs more statistical data. FWP calls it an exercise in caution; landowners refer to it scathingly as "kicking the can down the road." And if the issue goes unaddressed by FWP much longer, those landowners are willing to shut down popular access points on private land.
The latest round of kick the can came with the release of FWP's much-anticipated Blackfoot River Recreation Management Plan last month. As the Independent reported on April 1, FWP removed language for a permit allocation system from the final version of the plan due to overwhelming protest from the Ovando community. Restrictive traffic control measures have been ruled out for an additional two years, with the agency instead focusing management action on collecting additional data on river use.
"We're wanting to do the right thing," FWP Regional Park Manager Lee Bastian said last week, "but we need good information to do it."
Landowners along the Blackfoot Recreation Corridor say that's hooey. FWP has collected recreational data for years, spending as much as $55,000 on a study in 2002 alone. Critics of the plan who fear an upstream migration of rowdy crowds now common at Whitaker Bridge and Johnsrud Park wonder where all that information ended up. FWP acknowledges the data, but maintains it's inconclusive.
In lieu of a better answer—and better protection of the popular river—a collective of individuals with riverfront property are prepared to walk away from a 35-year agreement with FWP that provides public access to private land along the Blackfoot. The agreement, which is up for renewal April 19, stipulates that, in return for access, FWP ensures the resource isn't damaged—a promise many feel the agency has failed to keep.
"Only half of that [agreement] is going on right now—the half where we're letting FWP cater to the public," says landowner and longtime Blackfoot representative Jerry O'Connell. "FWP is taking credit for this dream. But if they're not going to step up and take care of their half of the bargain, we're willing to not renew the agreement."
The move would effectively shut down popular public access points, such as Roundup, on a nearly 30-mile stretch of the Blackfoot River.
Part of the landowners' frustration comes from hearing FWP's excuse before. O'Connell says the agency used the same stall tactics in the late 1990s, when FWP appointed a citizen advisory committee from the valley to explore potential solutions to recreational conflict on the Blackfoot River.
The report that came out of the Recreation Steering Committee (RecSteerCom) was strikingly similar to what FWP drafted last fall, O'Connell says, with one glaring exception: By early 2001, RecSteerCom said it found activity on the river growing at such a rate that more restrictive management actions "are likely an inevitable reality." Yet it's a conclusion that, a decade later, the agency still refuses to acknowledge.
"All Fish, Wildlife and Parks has done is kick the can down the road," says O'Connell, who also served as the sole Blackfoot resident on the latest plan's citizen review committee. "They haven't dealt with any problems. And that's what they did after RecSteerCom. They got the bottle regulation, but big deal...You shouldn't need a citizen's advisory committee to realize glass bottles are a bad idea on the river."
O'Connell isn't the only veteran of RecSteerCom to notice history repeating itself. Hank Goetz, lands director of the Blackfoot Challenge, says he was personally disappointed when FWP "walked away" from discussions about more restrictive management alternatives. The initial outcry from locals over a permit system created something of a controversy, he adds, likely prompting officials in Helena to drop the matter entirely.
"We've studied and studied and restudied," Goetz says. "At some point you've got to have the political will to sit down and say, 'Okay, we think this is a decision we're going to make'...Unless you're mantra will be 'We're going to provide the most recreation experience to the most people possible.' I'm a little afraid that's where the situation tends to end up by default if you just say, 'We need to collect more data.'"
At the local level, FWP officials echo the desire for some type of control measure. Region 2 Park Manager Chris Lorentz is in full agreement with the plan's critics that the agency should increase its number of on-river patrols. But Lorentz says his hands are tied when dealing with administrators in Helena, especially with a five-percent cut to the park budget already announced.
"I can't as a manager say, 'Absolutely, we'll double our number of patrols on the river,'" Lorentz says. "I don't know that that would be a wise thing for me to promise right now."
With the recreation plan all but buttoned up, Lorentz hopes to use the upcoming renewal discussions with Blackfoot Corridor landowners to calm tempers and discuss alternatives to the abandoned permit proposal.
"We're in this for the long-haul with the landowners," Lorentz says. "We've had this corridor agreement in place for better than 35 years. So we're not anxious to just close down the river to recreation or to ignore the landowners' desires. It's a partnership, alive and well."
But how long that remains true depends on the willingness of FWP administrators to finally bring the can to rest.
"The river's changed, the use has changed, the users have changed," says Land Lindbergh, former RecSteerCom member and Blackfoot resident of nearly 50 years. "Everybody has a right to be out there, but somewhere down the line I think there's a carrying capacity, and at certain times I think we're going over that."
O'Connell puts it more bluntly, opening up where others stop short.
"We're not going to be the good guys anymore," O'Connell says. "We see it as our last chance to get Fish, Wildlife and Parks to stop with the bullshit and get some policy that protects the resource."