Last summer, dive and scuba teams equipped with GPS devices assembled on the three forks of the Flathead River to scavenge for underwater detritus, turning up everything from refrigerators to toilets to metal rip rap along the riverbanks and bottoms.
Much of the debris on the Middle Fork were artifacts from the historic flood of 1964, although it’s uncertain how long the rest of the trash has been lying at the river bottom, said Sheena Pate, the watershed coordinator for the Flathead Rivers Alliance (FRA), a nonprofit that formed in 2019.
The dive teams were just a portion of the roughly 200 volunteers participating in the inaugural Flathead Waters Cleanup event, a Flathead basin-wide effort to help clean up trash in and around portions of the 219 miles of Wild and Scenic designated rivers and. Volunteers removed 2,600 pounds of trash from the waterways.
On Saturday, Aug. 13, the cleanup event returns for its second year in collaboration with the Flathead Basin Commission, Flathead Conservation District, Flathead Lakers and Lake County Conservation District. The FRA is seeking volunteers to hike along the shoreline, float or scuba dive to pick up trash on the north, middle and south forks of the Flathead River where 85% of its water flows into Flathead Lake.
Last year, officials with the Flathead Basin Commission and the Flathead Conservation District approached Pate to inquire about a partnership for a river cleanup event, which she soon began coordinating.
“It’s a great opportunity to build community through stewardship,” Pate said. “It’s certainly a valley-wide interest that extends across the Flathead Basin and builds community to celebrate this watershed.”
The FRA was formed in 2019 in response to an increase in recreational use on the three forks of the Flathead River over the past several years, leaving local agencies including the Flathead National Forest, Glacier National Park and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) scrambling to manage the river system.
“For quite a long time agency partners have been super strapped on funding and not having enough staff,” Pate said. “We’re also here to help in that capacity. A lot of very diverse stakeholders got together and said, ‘We all care about the three forks, how do we safeguard it for future generations?’”
Several different stakeholders including local business owners, guides, outfitters and government agencies collaborated to form FRA to provide education and outreach to recreationists to protect the Wild and Scenic designated river system.
“They had two different things they were really focused on, and one was the Comprehensive River Management Plan and also the dramatic increase in river usership, which has changed how people interact with the resource,” Pate said.
FRA has been working to collect data while providing public outreach and education about the Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP), which is scheduled to be released this fall.
Officials with the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park have been working to update the CRMP, which hasn’t been updated since 1980. The plan will likely limit group sizes and institute a permit system and other restrictions on certain portions of the three forks during peak summer months to manage its increased use.
FRA recently launched a citizen science river recreation monitoring program where volunteers collect river data including river usage, wildlife and invasive species, which will contribute to the management plan.
Additionally, the Flathead Rivers Alliance works closely with Montana FWP since establishing the life jacket loaner program at the West Glacier and Glacier Rim access sites. River Ambassadors volunteer with the nonprofit also set up popup information booths at popular access sites on the Middle and North Forks.
“We’ve had a couple weekends at West Glacier where we’ve handed eight lifejackets out in a two-hour period,” Pate said.
River Ambassadors also educate recreationists about human waste disposal and river etiquette at access sites where it’s common to see traffic jams.
“They teach them proper etiquette,” Pate said. “Users should be at the put-in at a 15-minute maximum. That’s something we have been seeing for quite some time and it has really escalated in the last two to five years. There’s a lot of new river users that don’t understand the proper protocol when it comes to river access and where it’s appropriate to park. We give them grace that maybe they don’t know.”
The Flathead Waters Cleanup will be on Aug. 13 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with an afterparty at Sacred Waters Brewing from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m featuring prizes, including guided fishing and rafting trips, an evening sailing cruise and outdoor gear. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about FRA, visit www.flatheadrivers.org.
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