Stuck Bus Reignites Camping Controversy at Flathead River Site

One year after crowds converged en masse at a federally managed site on the Flathead River, tensions again flare as officials decline to prohibit overnight use

By Tristan Scott
Campers and rafters at Blankenship Bridge north of Columbia Falls on July 30, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Social media images of a secondhand school bus swamped up to its undercarriage by the swollen flows of the Flathead River near Blankenship Bridge reignited a firestorm of controversy this week as enraged locals wrangled over what uses should be allowed on a riverfront site that was overrun by dispersed camping last year.

The spectacle ensued on the afternoon of June 15, when the driver of the privately owned bus attempted to access a gravel bar near the confluence of the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead River, located southwest of Blankenship Bridge. At the time, the Seeley Lake resident was midway through his ill-advised river crossing — a feat other motorists had managed earlier in the day, before the river flows increased with runoff — but he abandoned the attempt after the rear-end of the vehicle sank into the riverbed, with the water engulfing the chassis and luggage compartment.

Crews from a local towing agency removed the bus using a wrecking rig and winch, and law enforcement said the vehicle didn’t leak any fluids into the river, which is managed under a Wild and Scenic River designation that furnishes it with certain protections.

As of June 17, state, federal and county authorities were still sorting out whether the driver would face a single misdemeanor citation for driving on a waterway below the high water mark, or if a federal infraction would also come into play. However, setting aside the jurisdictional nuances and a lapse in common sense, authorities said the driver hadn’t committed an egregious offense.

“Despite the resources that went into resolving this incident, there’s not going to be any real significant criminal repercussions,” said Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino. “It’s a misdemeanor driving code violation. But obviously tensions are high because there are people posting on Facebook that the guy needs to be put in prison.”

 “We definitely discourage people driving through the water to access that area, and our preference is that people wait until the water levels are down, it’s not technically a violation of our motorized vehicle-use map,” said Tami MacKenzie, a spokesperson for the Flathead National Forest. “We’re very aware of the heightened emotions of the public right now, especially regarding Blankenship, but the best thing people can do is call the Hungry Horse Ranger Station and report their observations.”

Indeed, much of the public’s response to the bus incident on social media is residual, spilling over from last summer’s pandemic-related surge in dispersed camping on undesignated federal sites across the Flathead National Forest, where officials reported recreational use in areas they’ve never observed before — a trend they attributed in large part to the influx of out-of-state COVID migrants. In addition to crowding out the locals, the explosion of overnight camping presented public safety hazards as campfires were left unattended and human waste accumulated.

The gravel bar near Blankenship Bridge has been a popular site for boondocking since it was designated as a dispersed camping location more than a decade ago, but the scope of its overnight usage spiked off the charts last year, taking on a festival-like atmosphere and rankling neighbors, who aired their concerns in a petition signed by more than 200 local residents. In it, they demanded the Flathead National Forest prohibit overnight camping at the site and limit it to day-use only.

Last month, however, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele announced that dispersed camping at the site would continue to be allowed this summer, even as local communities brace for record-breaking visitation in the Flathead Valley, due in large part to the popularity of Glacier National Park and the region’s wide array of open spaces.

“Last year the Flathead National Forest was privileged to provide the public a great place for outdoor recreation and we are excited to provide that diversity of opportunity again this year,” Steele explained in a statement following his decision. “As a public agency, our job is to provide for a diverse range of recreational opportunity for the American people that want to enjoy their outdoors, including those underrepresented, nature-deprived communities.

“While I understand the increased use we are seeing across the Forest is a difficult change for some people, I believe any chance we can connect the American people to the outdoors on their public lands is positive,” Steele continued. “Our recreational staff are working hard to find ways to provide and encourage safe opportunities for recreational users in as a sustainable way as possible. We are fortunate here on the Flathead National Forest that we have areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex that can provide people solitude if they are seeking it, to areas in our front country like Blankenship where we should expect to see more concentrated public use. I ask that people respect all the legal uses that provide users from all walks of life the unique, diverse recreational experiences they deserve.”

Even if land management officials wanted to limit the uses at sites like Blankenship, doing so would require a drawn out public process, including a scoping period, even if it was done under the auspices of an emergency action, MacKenzie said.

“For us to go through the planning process to close Blankenship and make it day-use only takes time and requires public engagement,” she said, emphasizing that the Flathead National Forest is currently working to address long-term uses on all three forks of the Flathead River through a new comprehensive management plan. “Because we already have this process underway, where we are taking public comment, as long as we don’t have anything that rises to the level of an emergency, the best thing we can do is to continue to engage the public.”

Heino said his department has received a higher number of calls for patrols at the Blankenship site over the past year, but also noted that his overall call volume has climbed dramatically. As of June 17, Heino said the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office has received 20,531 calls for service this year, a 15% increase over the same time period last year.

“It sure seems like it’s going to be a busy summer,” Heino said. “It’s already been busy and it’s only June.”

Flathead National Forest officials are taking steps this summer such as adding portable toilets at the Blankenship site.

“The Forest will install portable toilets once water levels come down after spring runoff but be prepared to be self-contained before July 1,” according to officials.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.