If rivers can be called the arteries of a land, the Blackfoot River is the aorta of Western Montana. Thanks in part to Norman Maclean’s ode A River Runs Through It, which imbued our local riverbanks with mythic import, the Blackfoot River holds a high-profile spot in the minds and hearts of locals and nonlocals alike. And as the population of the area continues to creep ever upward, so does the use of the Blackfoot and so, too, do the effects of that use.
“The Blackfoot River isn’t getting any bigger and it isn’t getting any longer, says Loren Flynn, chairman of the Blackfoot River Recreation Steering Committee. “You can’t create more resource, so the option is to shift use around or to limit use.”
An early effort to regulate some Blackfoot River users is in the works. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has proposed new rules requiring three categories of users to get special recreation permits (SRP): commercial users, competitive events and organized group activities. Thursday, Feb. 3, a public hearing in Missoula will give people a chance to comment. If the FWP commissioners approve the rules at their March meeting, they could take effect in April.
For the most part, outfitters seem supportive of the rules. “The Blackfoot has had a lot of increased use in recent years, and I think most outfitters recognize that and want to do their part to help the FWP,” says Mike Johnston, owner of Montana River Guides, a whitewater rafting company that has guided trips on the Blackfoot and other area rivers for 11 years.
More than 75,000 people are estimated to recreate on the Blackfoot River each year, according to the environmental assessment that explores the issue of SRPs. And only about 2 percent of those users are with a commercial, competitive or organized group, the assessment estimates, although users haven’t historically been tracked.
Depending on the user, the permits would vary in length: An outfitter could request a permit that would last up to five years, and a single-day event could get a one-day permit. Fees, too, would vary. Commercial users would pay 3 percent of their gross revenue from Blackfoot trips, and competitive and group users would likely be charged a few dollars per person, per day of use. The fees could be waived by FWP on a case-by-case basis, as could a requirement for liability insurance. The rules for permitted users also vary depending on the stretch of river because certain areas are more sensitive to overuse.
This isn’t the first river in the area to be permitted: Outfitters must be permitted on the Clark Fork’s Alberton Gorge, and in central Montana the Smith River requires both outfitters and private citizens to obtain permits. Additionally, groups larger than 30 are supposed to get permits to use rivers adjacent to state and federal lands.
A main catalyst for the proposed rules is the fact that the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which owns some lands along the Blackfoot, was planning to require SRPs on its jurisdiction in order to comply with federal rules, according to Chuck Bridgeman, assistant field manager with the BLM. It makes sense, FWP Recreation Management Specialist Charlie Sperry says, for FWP to enact the same rules at the same time so the Blackfoot has consistent rules rather than a patchwork of policies that varies depending on the river bend.
Outfitters don’t have a problem with paying to use the Blackfoot, but at least a few of them think the rules don’t go far enough in protecting the river and addressing the issue of possible overuse. They also point out that they are a small minority of total users and that their customers are taxpayers just like everyone else.
“I’m not adverse to the concept of permitting. But it needs to be done in a way that truly benefits the resource,” says Matt Potter, an owner of The Kingfisher, a Missoula fishing outfitter. “I would have liked them to be more aggressive in putting some serious limits in—both public and private.”
Blackfoot River Outfitters Inc. owner John Herzer, a member of the Blackfoot Recreation Steering Committee that helped develop the proposed rules, agrees. “Use is use. If I have a client who fishes with me one day and by himself the next, there’s no difference in his effect. They should limit it across the board.”
Flynn points out that the rules aren’t intended to limit use—there is no cap on the number of permits issued—and the main goal is to create consistent management of the Blackfoot.
The matter of actually limiting use is a much bigger, stickier issue, and the SRPs don’t address it. “That day could come on the Blackfoot,” Sperry says. “But not today and not in this program.”
While there are no plans to limit use yet, officials say it’s a topic that’s on the table.
“We are very much aware that all of the users out there contribute to the use of the river and need to contribute to the management of the river,” Sperry says. But officials want to make it clear that the murky waters of regulating the average tuber or kayaker are going to be navigated carefully and slowly. “There is some fear out there that FWP is going to start limiting use on the rivers, and while we’re attentive to the need to address use, we recognize that people value their use and experiences on the river,” Sperry says.
The matter of addressing general users promises to be much more contentious and complex than the issue of the proposed rules at hand. Says Flynn: “It’s not easy to try to appease everyone while at the same time really trying to protect the resource.”
To comment on the proposed rules, go to the public hearing Thursday, Feb. 3, at 6:30 p.m, at Ruby’s Reserve Street Inn in Missoula. You can also submit comments through Feb. 11 by writing to: Charlie Sperry, Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 1420 E. Sixth Ave., Helena, MT 59620; or email Sperry at email@example.com.