Dispute Swirls Around Swan River Access

Public access site closed temporarily along popular section of Swan River as commissioners seeks answers to heavy congestion

By Dillon Tabish
Floaters arrange their gear near the Rainbow Drive access site for an afternoon on the Swan River on July 9, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

FERNDALE — This week, as temperatures rose toward 90 degrees, Tracy Howell loaded up her two young kids in Kalispell and drove to their favorite section of river.

The Swan River meanders north from the lake through a calm stretch of water destined for Flathead Lake at Bigfork. It’s ideal for floaters on inner tubes or anglers casting for trout, and during the hot summer months the river hosts a constant parade of people.

“There’s not that many floats that the kids can really enjoy where there’s no rapids,” Howell said. “I bring the kids down here often. They love it.”

But when Howell and her family showed up recently, they found the most frequently used put-in — the Swan River Fishing Access Site on Rainbow Drive in Ferndale — was closed.

This popular section of water appears to be the latest battleground over public access, as nearby homeowners report heavy congestion, illegal parking and overcrowding issues while others consider it one of the only ways to enjoy a beloved stretch of river.

Last month the Lake County commissioners opted to close the popular site during the week while reviewing the matter. The county access site, which features a paved turnaround and dirt embankment leading to the river, is open on weekends with a sheriff’s deputy patrolling the area for illegal parking and littering.

The commission will address the subject July 21 as an item on the agenda for the upcoming parks board meeting. The meeting starts at 3:30 p.m. inside the commissioners’ office in Polson.

“We don’t want to permanently close it. We know the public utilizes it. But we need to address the issues because of the high use,” said Ann Brower, one of three commissioners in Lake County. “There is a safety issue there. It’s not something (area neighbors are) blowing up in their minds. There’s a blind corner right there and with the amount of people literally in the road, it’s dangerous.”

Brower said the site is being closed on the weekdays because the county can’t have it patrolled all week.

Meanwhile, floaters have begun parking near the bridge down the road on South Ferndale Drive, which has simply shifted many of the issues to a new site.

“I do understand why the residents were angry because people were completely ignoring the signs that said ‘no parking’ and just blocking people’s driveways,” said Rich Bassett, who lives between Kalispell and Columbia Falls and frequently travels to Ferndale to float the Swan. “But I feel that not all of us should’ve been punished for that.”

The Swan River Fishing Access Site is a day-use only public area for hand-launch boats only. It allows access of trailers with a maximum length of 25 feet. It sits off the narrow Rainbow Drive and is the only formal public access site along this stretch of Swan River besides a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks access area downstream, where most floaters take out. The majority of the river’s shores is private property and dotted with homes.

“It’s a great piece of water, and public access is a big part of the recreation business in Montana,” said Jason Lanier, who owns Bigfork Anglers, an outfitting business that leads guided angling trips throughout the valley.

“Any loss of public access is a bummer, for locals and businesses. That’s why people come to Montana, because we have access.”