Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Blankenship river site barraged with campers

by Chris Peterson
Hungry Horse News | July 30, 2020 1:00 AM

A free camping site along the Flathead River at Blankenship looks more like a small village than a wild and scenic river this summer.

People have been camping in droves on U.S. Forest Service-owned access along the river, often parking their campers right to the water’s edge.

The camping, while legal at this point, seems to fly in the face of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which states in its preamble that “it is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

The river at Blankenship is part of the Wild and Scenic system.

On Sunday night the Hungry Horse News counted at least 35 different campers, some in hard-sided units, others in tents.

At the moment, the camping itself is legal, Flathead National Forest spokeswoman Lauren Alley said, provided campers are adhering to other rules, such as disposing properly of human waste, storing food properly to keep it from bears and following the three-night stay limit.

Alley said the Forest Service has increased patrols of the site.

There is no bathroom at the site, which is on the southwest side of the river. People have to walk across the Blankenship Road to the Flathead County park, which has a toilet, or go across the river to a bathroom on the other side, if their camper doesn’t have facilities.

The camping has brought complaints, both to the newspaper and the Forest Service.

“I personally have counted up to 150 vehicles at the Blankenship take-out ... There is the problem of the transient campers that sprawl their tents and giant RVs all over the gravel bar downstream of Blankenship bridge. There are folks literally living out there all summer,” local resident Ryan Dunn recently claimed in a letter to the Hungry Horse News.

Blankenship used to be a sleepy place where locals went.

No more.

Today, one website lists it as one of the top-20 free campsites in the U.S., complete with a four-star rating. The site freecampsites.net comes complete with reviews of the site and drivinvibin.com rated it as a “top 20” free site the country.

As such, the area is drawing people from across the country, based on the license plates the newspaper witnessed on site.

Alley said a long-term solution will be addressed as the Forest Service continues to work on its comprehensive river management plan for the three forks of the Flathead, which are all classified under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

That plan is still in the works, however.

A simple solution appears to be what Flathead County is already doing, Dunn noted in his letter. It doesn’t allow overnight camping on its plot of land northwest of the bridge.

As a result, there were just a handful of people having a picnic Sunday evening, a far cry from the village atmosphere just on the other side of the road.