New Project Leader Assigned to Guide Overdue Flathead River Management Plan

Beset with delays, the Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Three Forks of the Flathead could be available for public review by fall 2024

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

As river season gets underway, resource managers with the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park are fielding a familiar line of questioning from the river-using public about the status of the long-delayed Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP) for the three forks of the Flathead River.

On May 6, park and forest officials attempted to satisfy that curiosity with an update on the overdue plan’s progress as well as details on a new development — the agencies have selected a project leader to help steer the planning process this summer in hopes of emerging in the fall with a draft plan available for public review.

“We are bringing on a new project leader who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in Wild and Scenic River planning,” Rob Davies, Hungry Horse-Glacier District Ranger, said in a prepared statement. “Our aim is a cohesive interdisciplinary, interagency team with aligned vision, working together on a plan for all the three forks, now and going into the future.”

Although the news release on Monday did not name the new team leader, a Flathead National Forest spokesperson identified her as Mary Greenwood, who has experience with river management plans from across the nation and joins the local planning effort from the U.S. Forest Service’s Wilderness, Wild and Scenic Rivers Program in Washington, D.C.

A new timeline announced Monday anticipates a draft CRMP and environmental assessment will be released in the fall of 2024 for public review and comment, with public engagement sessions to follow. Once the draft plan is available for public review, agency officials will initiate the environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which will include opportunities for public involvement and comment.

“In the coming months, the emphasis is on completing the draft plan with a recreation capacity analysis, incorporating the latest monitoring data as well as development work completed since 2020,” according to Monday’s news release.

Those interested in participating and submitting comments can expect public meetings and notification of comment periods through the following website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/flathead/?project=56536

“This means a lot to a lot of people, and we want to acknowledge that we’re still committed to developing and completing this plan,” Kira Powell, public affairs officer for the Flathead National Forest, said Monday. “The process that we hope will unfold is for us to work as a team to develop the draft plan so that it’s available for public review this fall. It’s still an internal draft plan, which is a jumping-off point for NEPA analysis. But having a new project leader jump in will help us move this forward.”

A raft floats under Belton Bridge in West Glacier on July 23, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Managers with the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park began work on the lengthy CRMP process in 2018 and, in July 2019, released a proposed action plan for the three forks of the Flathead River — the North, South and Middle forks, which all received federal designations in 1976 under the Wild and Scenic River Act. The draft, along with an environmental assessment, was expected to be released for public comment in early 2020 with a final decision delivered that summer; however, the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to staffing and funding issues, forced a series of delays. Since then, the federal agencies have on a perennial basis promised new timelines to finalize the plan, as well as another round of public engagement sessions, none of which have come to fruition.

Both park and forest officials emphasized that interagency collaboration and public engagement remain top priorities as they work to complete the plan.

“Glacier National Park is excited to work collaboratively with the Forest, various stakeholders and the public to preserve the outstanding, remarkable values represented in the Three Forks of the Flathead River,” Phil Wilson, Glacier National Park’s division chief for Science and Resource Management, said in the release. “The Wild and Scenic Forks of the Flathead River are important, not just for their ecological significance, but also for the recreational enjoyment afforded to the community and park visitors.”

Designated by Congress in 1976 under the Wild and Scenic River Act, the Three Forks of the Flathead Wild and Scenic River are currently managed under the 1980 Flathead River Management Plan. For the last six years, the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park have been drafting an updated CRMP for these rivers that they cooperatively manage, taking into account a significant increase of use (both on shore and by boat) and an obligation to protect the river system’s “Outstanding Remarkable Values” as characterized by the federal legislation.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers System has three river classifications: wild, scenic and recreational. A single river or river segment may be divided into different classifications, depending on the type and intensity of the development and access present along the river at the time of designation.

On the Flathead River system, all three levels of classification exist along 219 miles of river and the draft plan is necessary to protect and enhance the values identified in the original designation. The last management plan was adopted in 1980.

To do so involves a balancing act that uses “indicators,” “triggers” and “thresholds” to prompt management actions including permitting and limiting sizes of float groups and restricting outfitters. Managers use triggers and thresholds to help them set and evaluate levels of resource condition and user capacity with a prescribed monitoring plan that takes into consideration the unique characteristics of each of the river’s three forks.

More information on the Flathead Wild & Scenic River Comprehensive River Management Plan can be found at: http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/flathead/crmp.

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