News & Features

No-Wake Law Making Waves

Boaters say restrictions too strict

A boat full of teenagers and 20-somethings pulls a wakeboarder out of the shadows of a secluded bay on Echo Lake northeast of Bigfork. Nearby, two elderly men speed across the choppy water through a channel to an isolated fishing spot. These two parties have little in common, except both are breaking the law – and this summer, they’re more likely to be punished for it.

Recent enforcement of no-wake zones at some Flathead Valley lakes is causing waves. Dane Hollinger and his brother Drew run and teach at a successful wakeboarding academy on Echo Lake. The laws haven’t adversely affected business, according to Dane Hollinger. But he does say the no-wake regulations are growing into quite a nuisance.

A wake is the white water directly behind the boat or at the crest of the waves the boat makes. Montana boating laws require that all watercraft operating on public lakes greater than 35 acres west of the Continental Divide operate at a no-wake speed 200 feet from the shoreline.

“It’s a joke.” Hollinger said. “There are tons of areas where you can’t be 200 feet away.”

The Montana Department Fish, Wildlife and Parks adopted these rules in 2000, but only began strictly enforcing them last summer.

“We warned people for the last seven years,” FWP Warden Captain Lee Anderson said. “Last August we decided to enforce what is on the books.”

Although this rule may irritate some, Anderson points out it was established for a reason. It is a safety hazard to have boats buzzing through narrow channels and bays when drivers don’t know what is around the corner, Anderson said. The no-wake rules also attempt to alleviate shore erosion and prevent wildlife disturbance. Yet opponents argue that these no-wake rules actually create more of a safety hazard by bottlenecking vessels together in the main areas of some lakes.

“This is definitely a polarizing issue,” Anderson said, adding that FWP is caught somewhere in the middle. FWP has 12 wardens to patrol Northwest Montana’s lakes. The Flathead’s more heavily used lakes are usually patrolled twice a week. Many boaters only abide by the no-wake rules, Anderson said, when the lake is being patrolled.

“It shouldn’t be a secret that we are out there,” Anderson said. “But as soon as we leave they are back out there breaking the law.”

Critics contend that the no-wake policy should not be applied to smaller inlet filled lakes such as Echo Lake and some portions of Swan Lake and Foy’s Lake. Hollinger said the regulations are great for the larger lakes but don’t make sense on Echo. “I can understand having these rules on Flathead Lake,” Hollinger said.

Anderson agreed: “This isn’t a hot-button issue on the bigger lakes.”

FWP has made an exception to the no-wake rules for the Thompson chain of lakes along U.S. Highway 2.

Anderson said he was unsure why the commission established these rules for some lakes and not others. The commission is a third-party organization separate from FWP established by the governor to make these rules. For a lake to go on the exempt list, or to tighten restrictions a petition must be filed. After the petition is filed FWP hands over the information to the commission, which then decides whether to make the issue a public process and continue with it further. Anderson believes the no-wake issues on these smaller lakes will go before the commission this fall at the earliest. Until then, game wardens will enforce the law as it stands.

“We will continue to issue citations to drive home the point that (no-wake regulations) are there,” Anderson said.

Dane Hollinger doesn’t plan on changing either.

“We will keep going to the judge,” said Hollinger. “We’ve been there five times already and two more are on the way.”

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