In July 2009, then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer floated down the Clark Fork past newly dam-free Milltown with a fly rod in his hand. Schweitzer, along with a fly-fishing guide, the chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and a representative of the Clark Fork Coalition, was on the first raft to float unimpeded past the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers in more than 100 years.
“The Clark Fork is back,” Schweitzer announced that summer. But if you don’t count the raft of lesser officials that dogged his heels downriver that July day, that first official passage through the confluence was also—to date—the last.
With the current Clark Fork-Blackfoot confluence closure set to expire in July, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission has approved a proposal to open the confluence stretch of the Clark Fork to the public. Improved river access is a prelude to the state’s projected 2014 opening of the 500-acre Milltown State Park, located on the west bank of the confluence and directly accessible from both the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. The park is anticipated, but since the removal of Milltown Dam in spring 2008, the bigger question among anglers and floaters has been: When can I hit the most talked-about water in western Montana?
The answer is likely to be May 1, 2013. Various FWP officials over the past year have voiced optimism about a 2013 reopening, but those claims have always been speculative. Now, the proposal from FWP’s Parks Division—submitted to the commission Feb. 6—states that closure of the Clark Fork “is no longer necessary,” citing the completion of years of restoration work by the agency and Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program. The commission approved the proposal Feb. 14, and accepted public comment through mid-March.
The opening would allow floaters to put in at any fishing access site upstream of Milltown on the Clark Fork and float right into Missoula. FWP’s proposal does come with a few catches, however. First, the Parks Division recommends that portions of the riverbank remain closed to allow vegetation to continue its recovery without disturbance.
FWP regional river recreation manager Chet Crowser sounded all but certain of a 2013 opening in an interview with the Missoula Independent last fall. But it’s unlikely the agency will simultaneously lift the Blackfoot closure upstream of the confluence until safety concerns about the Interstate 90 bridge piers can be addressed. The proposal says the lower Blackfoot “poses numerous human-made hazards for river recreationists,” and recommends the commission approve only bank access along that stretch. A continued Blackfoot closure would extend from the Weigh Station fishing access site to the river’s confluence with the Clark Fork at the site of the future Milltown State Park.
Jennifer Lawson, marketing and communications director for Montana State Parks, says the state can’t give the river community a definitive answer until FWP has reviewed public comment on its river-opening proposal.