American Rivers pulls no punches when describing the upper North Fork of the Flathead River. It’s a “recreational paradise for anglers and paddlers,” they write, where “emerald water flows past a seemingly endless procession of show-stopping scenery.”
For anyone who’s spent time on the stretch of Wild and Scenic river, it’s difficult to argue with that narrative. Simply put, the North Fork is a magical place.
But, for better or worse, word has gotten out about this neck of the woods. Some 3 million visitors enter Glacier National Park annually — a number that is on a steady incline. Meanwhile, the cities surrounding the park are also expanding at a rapid rate. About 100,000 people now live in the Flathead Valley.
And while more residents and more visitors fuel our local economy, they also bring wear and tear on our scenic amenities.
Because of that, the Flathead National Forest is eyeing the prospect of crowd control measures for the scenic section of the upper North Fork. At a recent North Fork Interlocal meeting, forest officials said they may have to initiate some immediate management actions because of increasing river use. That could result in a permit system or parking restrictions, they said.
Talk of more government oversight is often met with a collective groan. But in the case of preserving the upper North Fork, some form of crowd management is probably a good idea.
Data collected in 2017 showed a clear peak in river usage on the North Fork in July, where the area around Ford north of Polebridge saw as many as 240 people a day. The July daily average for that stretch of river was 75 people.
While these numbers pale in comparison to traffic on the Middle Fork of the Flathead — an average of 867 floaters take to the water per day in July below Moccasin Creek — they likely give pause to local river rats who appreciate the serenity found on the upper North Fork between the Canadian border and Polebridge.
According to the 2017 study, the Flathead River is experiencing “more shore parties, dispersed camping and extended seasons,” lending to the perception of over-crowding.
Limiting daily use — both commercial and private — could be one way to preserve the integrity of this special landscape. Let’s not forget, Glacier National Park put a permit system in place for backcountry camping when crowds hit a tipping point. It’s not a perfect system, but it has proven to be effective at keeping the park’s backcountry pristine.
The Forest Service is expected to release a proposed action sometime in April, so stay tuned in and get involved. A permit system may not be the right answer for the North Fork, but it’s an idea worth studying.