A section of Whitefish River that drifts through the heart of town is closer to becoming the first non-motorized waterway in Montana.
The Whitefish City Council voted 4-3 on Monday to petition Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and request the state prohibit motorized watercraft on a remediated segment of river.
The city is seeking restricted access along the popular recreational artery near its origin at Whitefish Lake to the bridge at JP Road. An original proposal sought limited access further south to the bridge at Montana Highway 40, but councilors reeled in the potential six-mile non-motorized zone close to residential shoreline neighborhoods.
Mayor John Muhlfeld cast the deciding vote after the council split 3-all. Richard Hildner, Frank Sweeney and John Anderson were in favor. Chris Hyatt, Phil Mitchell and Bill Kahle were opposed, largely because a proposal to allow boats with small horsepower engines failed.
Councilors gave the OK to watercraft with electric motors.
The narrow approval means the city will send a formal letter to FWP Director Jeff Hagener asking for the urban non-motorized designation, which would be the first of its kind in the state.
Once befouled by decades of contaminated sediment from the nearby rail yard, the upper reaches of Whitefish River are now revitalized and reopened to paddlers and other recreationists after nearly five years of environmental remediation by BNSF Railway. In August, BNSF and the City of Whitefish recognized the completion of the cleanup project with a public ceremony and dedication of a new public river access for non-motorized users.
The interplay between motorized watercraft and the narrow waterway through Whitefish has persisted for decades. In 1989, the council voted unanimously to petition FWP to implement a no-wake restriction on the river after complaints stacked up over jet skis and motorboats speeding along the corridor and endangering paddlers and waterfront docks. FWP concurred, yet problems lingered.
Tensions boiled over in the fall of 2007, and the council voted unanimously in support of FWP heightening restrictions and prohibiting watercraft with internal combustion motors on the stretch of river within city limits. But public backlash surfaced among property owners, and the council rescinded its proposal the following month.
Hildner, who has largely spearheaded the movement, has cited public safety and resource concerns as reasons for restricting motorboats, jet skis and other watercraft from using the river.
“Non-motorized use on the river is increasing, including swimming, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), floating and boating,” Hildner wrote in his resolution proposing changing the river designation.
“The river presents several challenges to motorized users such as limited sight distances, narrow waterway, and speed. As a consequence of the BNSF River clean up, river use appears to be increasing.”
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