Whitefish residents turned out in droves Thursday night for a public hearing to consider whether a stretch of the Whitefish River should be designated non-motorized, with the lion’s share of those in attendance – including numerous city officials – voicing support, while a slim minority expressed dissent.
The city is seeking restricted access along the popular recreational artery near the river’s confluence at Whitefish Lake to the trestle bridge at JP Road. The proposal, adopted by the city council in November and unanimously approved at its regular meeting on April 14, would amend the current no-wake regulation and restrict the three-mile stretch of river to manually powered vessels like kayaks and stand-up paddleboards or boats with electric motors.
The public hearing was before two local administrators with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, regional director Jim Satterfield and Warden Captain Lee Anderson, who will present the comments to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. The Commission will determine a final course of action.
When the two-hour meeting concluded, 37 residents had expressed strong support for the non-motorized designation while five residents said such a designation was both unnecessary and unfair.
Proponents say the river corridor and the community would be better served by a non-motorized designation, citing benefits to aquatic wildlife species, resource protection and the recreation economy. The rule change would also allay safety concerns, they said, while providing a unique recreational experience in the heart of Whitefish.
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said residents have enjoyed a renewed sense of ownership of the river since completion of a 2013 cleanup project by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, carried out in response to an administrative order by the Environmental Protection Agency. The river bottom and stream bank sediments were remediated due to contamination by petroleum products, like bunker and diesel fuels, and have since been restored.
“After decades of contamination and the return of the river to a clean, healthy environment, there is a renewed interest in protecting, embracing and further advancing the recreational and economic benefits the Whitefish River provides our community,” he said. “Since completion of the river cleanup, important habitat has been restored for a wide range of aquatic and riparian-dependent wildlife species, and non-motorized use has proliferated, fostering a unique recreational experience available to not only Whitefish residents, but all Montanans and visitors to our community.”
Muhlfeld also said the proposed amendment is a significant compromise, noting that in 2006 the city petitioned the FWP for a similar request that encompassed a much longer section of the river, extending from the beginning at Whitefish Lake downstream to Highway 40. However, the city withdrew the petition in response to public input.
“The city of Whitefish has listened to and acknowledged the concerns raised by the public, and we feel that the petition before you this evening strikes a fair and equitable balance between all user groups,” he said.
Sonny Schierl, who owns Paddlefish Sports, a stand-up paddleboard retail and rental shop in Whitefish, said the corridor is integral to his business and to the enjoyment of the sport, away from the disruptive wakes of motorized boats. In the summer, Schierl offers classes on the portion of river under consideration, teaching children how to paddleboard through a partnership with the city parks and recreation department.
“I take these little people there because of the safety it offers” away from motorboats, he said. “I think this proposal is a no-brainer.”
Opponents of the rule change, while scant, were equally vocal, saying that safety concerns were unfounded as there has never been an incident, and that a non-motorized designation would place an unfair onus on motor boaters who rely on the corridor as an access point.
“I’m hearing a lot of what-ifs but nothing about how motorized traffic has affected anyone,” said Kurt Lewis, calling the procession of proponents a “dog and pony show. “In Montana, I can’t believe we’re letting special interest groups take away the rights of Montana sportsmen and fishermen who support the state by buying licenses and gear.”
Anderson, the FWP warden captain, said he patrolled the stretch of river for years and observed few conflicts between motorized and non-motorized users.
“We haven’t had a lot of violations on the river. There were several instances but we haven’t had a lot of issues.”
Still, others urged a proactive course of action, predicting that motorized use will increase now that the river is restored and re-opened following the BNSF cleanup.
“If we keep the door open for motorized use it will grow and there will be conflict,” said Whitefish resident Steve Thompson. “Now is the time to nip it in the bud.”
Whitefish Fire Chief Tom Kennelly said he lives on the river and was surprised to learn there is a no-wake zone designation. He said he worries constantly when his children play in the river, and joked that his kids refer to him as “Safety Dad.”
“From my observation as Safety Dad, I sit up on my deck and cringe. Their definition of no wake and mine are at polar ends,” Kennelly said. “I worry that we will have a safety tragedy. I’d like to see the restriction extended to Highway 40, but I think this is a fair compromise.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission will continue to accept public comment until April 18. Input may be submitted by mail to: Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 Office, 490 North Meridian Rd., Kalispell, Mont., 59901; by fax at (406) 257-0349; or by email at email@example.com.
The commission will hear live testimony at its June 12 meeting in Helena, and final action on the proposed amendment is slated for Aug. 7.
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