Of the 3,994 empty aluminum cans, 250 glass bottles, 297 plastic containers, 84 sandals and shoes, 62 pairs of sunglasses, 2 watches, 12 car parts, 1 gutted television, 1 cassette player, 4 pieces of fishing gear, 15 deflated inner tubes and assorted undergarments recovered during the 3rd annual Blackfoot River cleanup on Saturday July 29, one item was especially poignant: a purple onion bag, one of 5,000 purchased by the Missoula Bureau of Land Management office and distributed free to float tube purchasers, along with a stretch of twine for tying, at the downtown Tire Rama store on West Pine. The mesh bag, part of a river trash-control effort now in its second summer, was empty.
Though the weather has cooled over the past few days, the previous two weeks of near-record high temperatures drove tube floaters, boat rowers, toe dippers and parking lot partiers to the Blackfoot in droves. Most concentrated their attentions on the 11-mile stretch between Whitaker Bridge up the access corridor road and Johnsrud Park, ground zero of recreational use on the Blackfoot, just off Highway 200.
Chris Lorentz, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks recreation manager for the Blackfoot, says the recent heat drove use “off the scale.” But it isn’t so much the number of people on the Blackfoot that’s at issue, he says, but their behavior while they’re there. Specifically littering.
“The worst part,” says Lorentz, who participated in the cleanup, “is there’s still trash on the river. One hundred and twenty volunteers, including 16 scuba divers and 20 rafters, canoeists and kayakers, covered 18 miles of river. A lot got left behind.
“It’s disheartening,” the nonetheless grateful Lorentz says. “We’ve been seeing steady increasing trends in the numbers of people using the Blackfoot, but the quantity of litter seems to be exceeding the growth rate in terms of visitation. There seem to be more litterbugs than there used to be.”
But it’s not just litterbugs. This is the year Lorentz has started cracking down hard on enforcement of a new glass regulation. Permanent signs prohibiting glass bottles were posted last year, and Lorentz gave most offenders a one-summer grace period to adjust. “This year,” he says, “the gloves came off.” He’s written some 50 $85 tickets for glass already.
Lorentz’s other main challenge is belligerent drunkenness.
“We’ve had a lot of drunken behavior when we get these large crowds. You start to see a party mentality that’s frightened families away. You see fistfights breaking out while boats are unloading…we’ve seen a lot of that this summer, the combination of heat, alcohol and crowds.”
In fact sheriff’s deputies used a Tazer gun to subdue a man described as intoxicated and combative Saturday, July 23, on what Lorentz describes as probably the peak-use day so far this summer. The man had been asked to leave the area by a camp host, according to Undersheriff Mike Dominick, and resisted arrest. Dominick later described the incident as an aberration, saying, “Most of the people are just out there to have a good time.”
The Blackfoot Corridor lies under the jurisdiction of two FW&P river rangers, a recreation warden, up to three other game wardens, up to three Bureau of Land Management rangers, and up to six sheriff’s deputies, with the cooperation of the Montana Highway Patrol. Lorentz has seen seven officers in Johnsrud at one time.
“We’ve had hours of discussion,” Lorentz says, about how to best manage the human flow.
The problem is the obvious one. Commercial and declared group use of the Blackfoot is already permitted, offering some restrictions, by FW&P and the BLM. But the crowds are primarily noncommercial casuals, and no one is prepared to tell the Missoula area’s noncommercial casual river users that they can’t use the river whenever they want to.
“The problem with regulating how many people get to go is that somebody has to stay home. It’s not politically acceptable to regulate use on the Blackfoot. The public is willing to restrict outfitters and commercial use, but that’s not the problem for the most part. If you want it limited, sometimes you’re going to show up and the guy at the gate is going to say sorry, we’re full.”
Without a system of controlling the number of river users, Lorentz has to rely on education to try to minimize impacts on the river, and on river users themselves.
Two years ago, in addition to enacting the glass prohibition, FW&P took control of two new river access sites, the Bonner weigh station and the old rest area Angevine, hoping to spread the use around, but the agency hasn’t been able to get the money to put even bathrooms in yet, and “people are moving to town faster than we can buy or develop sites,” And so, Lorentz says, “we are definitely going to be discussing more intrusive ways of limiting use on the Blackfoot. I can’t say for sure we’ll implement a use permit system or a car pass, but we’ll be sitting down with the citizens advisory committee to discuss it.” That public-access meeting will be scheduled for fall, Lorentz says.
Marietta Pfister will doubtless be there.
Just downriver from Johnsrud, near Rainbow Bend, Pfister watches the tubes pass all summer long, as she has for almost 20 years, and she’s heartened to note that though the trash collected at this year’s cleanup, which she organized, increased from last year, so did the volunteer turnout. She’s an older lady and she exhibits no particular distaste for tubers, but the litter is just a matter of manners, and she can’t help but wonder about the seemingly increasing lack thereof. Just the other day she watched three tubers toss empty cans as they drifted by. She got on them and they splashed around to take them back. She’s not interested in advocating a “political solution.” She just wants people to realize the potential for collective harm in their individual actions and stop treating the place like a dump that it isn’t, yet.
Looking into the future, Lorentz agrees. He’s already anticipating a restored confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers, and unless floaters learn to show some respect for the resource, he fears, the problem will just move downstream.
“I hope we can turn this around,” he says, “so we don’t have 30 miles of trashed garbage pit. We don’t want to just trade one mess for another.”