With the summer recreation season coming on fast, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has yet to renew a historic and much-valued public access agreement with private landowners on the Blackfoot River. Failure by FWP to meet concerned landowners halfway could leave area hikers, floaters and fishermen up the creek.
The Blackfoot Corridor Agreement, which expired this spring, was originally scheduled for renewal on April 18. But disagreement over new language establishing annual meetings between landowners and FWP has stretched the debate over three meetings and three drafts in the last two months. Specifically, landowners hope to use annual reviews of management procedures and the option to cancel the agreement as incentive for FWP administrators to address concerns about abuses to private property. Their latest offer is currently under FWP review.
"Are we experiencing some rough roads right now? Maybe so," says FWP Regional Park Manager Lee Bastian. "But I think that comes with growth, I think that comes with the beautiful resources and great rivers we've got in this area. These issues can be a bit challenging to deal with at times, no doubt about it."
Even if negotiators can't renew the agreement, access at FWP-owned put-ins and campsites would remain unchanged. But access to land above the high water mark will essentially disappear.
"We've had 30 years of that kind of opportunity up there, so you can imagine how ingrained it is in people's minds," says Dick Fichtler, outdoor recreation manager for the Bureau of Land Management, which owns land along the corridor. "Then they find themselves in a jam because they took out for lunch on someone's private property and didn't realize they'd backed out of the agreement."
Blackfoot River activist Jerry O'Connell has emerged as the ringleader in what he calls the "Mexican standoff" with FWP. O'Connell told the Independent in early April that he and others like longtime Blackfoot resident Land Lindbergh were "not going to be the good guys anymore." Last month he filed an official appeal to the agency's new Blackfoot River Recreation Management Plan, which he helped draft, and says his goal was to hold FWP to its promises of resource protection. That appeal was denied. Now he says the corridor agreement is literally the last line of defense.
"Never in the past has there been a threat of not continuing this agreement," O'Connell says. "But we're all fed up with it, with the lack of effort on FWP to take significant steps."
O'Connell's complaints echo along the Blackfoot with folks like Gloria Roark, a participant in the agreement since its establishment in 1976. Though Roark isn't taking part in the latest renewal discussions, she's grown increasingly concerned by the level of abuse along her property. Someone walked away from a canoe a few years back, she says, leaving it washed up on the shore.
"We've tried to accommodate the public for years and years, and we were actually way ahead of letting the public use land along the river," Roark says. "But there's a lot of trash and abuse."
And the same annual problems are starting anew, like camping on private property and toilet paper blooms. Juanita Vero, owner of the E Bar L Ranch, saw an illegal campfire on her property near Sunset Hill just last Saturday. While she understands the agency is strapped, Vero hopes to see FWP better educate the public on resource respect.
"I get frustrated with the lack of education or sense of responsibility that the general recreating public has," Vero says. "It's not that they're being malicious, it's just that they don't know any better."
Vero's patience for the situation remains relatively intact. But she understands the frustrations with FWP are much greater for those like O'Connell and Lindbergh who have owned property on the river for 20 or more years and are still waiting for solutions.
"It would be really disappointing, for all of us, if we couldn't make it work," Vero says of the agreement. "And yes, it might be getting to that point where something has to happen."
O'Connell says he's had no update on the agreement's progress since landowners last met with FWP officials three weeks ago. According to Roger Semler, FWP assistant administrator, the agency is reviewing the latest draft and preparing its own response. He remains optimistic that the agreement will be renewed before the peak recreation period in late summer. However, renewal is ultimately up to the individual landowners listed on the document.
The uncertain future of the agreement is, by extension, a concern for local businesses that depend on the river. Kienan Slate, co-owner of the Missoula-based 10,000 Waves Raft and Kayak Adventures, says he'd still be able to run clients down stream, but the inability to access private property would make the Blackfoot less navigable. At the same time, though, he sympathizes with landowners.
"How would you like somebody to go to your yard and chop down a tree?" Slate asks. "You'd be upset too. I know exactly where these guys come from."
But those hoping to freely recreate along the river aren't the only ones with something to lose. Landowners would no longer have FWP rangers and wardens protecting their property, as guaranteed in the agreement. Considering that, Slate believes those landowners "would be nuts" to abandon it.
Still, Slate puts some of the responsibility on the recreating public to take the heat off the agency.
"If they aren't aware of [the agreement], they can lose these things," Slate says. "They think it's all FWP property, and it's not...That's private land. You're not messing with the state."