MISSOULA - Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is close to publishing a draft document for the Fish Creek State Park and Wildlife Management Area. But don’t call it a management plan — it’s a “recreation strategy.”
On Tuesday night at FWP Region 2 headquarters, more than 60 people listened to FWP Region 2 supervisor Randy Arnold and University of Montana facilitator Charles Besancon provide an outline of the recreation strategy for the 45,000-acre Fish Creek complex near Alberton Gorge, a draft of which should be released in late April.
“It’s not a management plan, which has a ton of specificity and description, but instead a strategy. This strategy will give us direction on how we’ll manage across major themes, some really clear specifics, but then give us space where individual project actions can be handled when we have capacity and time,” Arnold said. “We’ve been gathering a lot of information but don’t have a plan for you to react to. We think we have a good idea of what we’re hearing. But there’s plenty of room to adjust - we’re still listening, we’re still learning.”
If what they heard Tuesday night is any indication, the strategy already needs some change.
“We have so many people trying to fit into a small space. That’s the problem,” said commenter Teri Greb.
FWP acquired the Fish Creek property in 2010 from The Nature Conservancy, although it had originally belonged to the Plum Creek Timber Company. Then, former FWP Director Joe Maurier decided 5,600 acres in the middle of the 42,000-acre wildlife management area should be a state park. That has led to some public discord as sportsmen and wildlife advocates have pushed back against the development of more amenities in and outside the state park that was promoted in a 2013 state park plan.
“We had a very engaged public. A lot of tension on that plan. And a huge volume of comments and concern about a lot of new recreational amenities and development,” Arnold said. “A lot of questions were raised about how does that relate to the wildlife management area. So we thought it best if we paused on that.”
Now, FWP has hired the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana to lead the planning process and conduct surveys of the public.
In addition to a two-month anonymous online survey, Travis Ankam of UM said they had 40 different conversations with various stakeholders during the fall.
The stakeholders included the Forest Service, Mountain Bike Missoula, Mineral County Resource Coalition, Clark Fork Coalition, DNRC, Bitterroot Advisory Council, The Great Burn Conservation Alliance, HD 14, a big game hunting guide, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and several local landowners who have a vested interest in one or more ways, according to the Clark Fork Valley Press-Mineral Independent.
The responses highlighted some areas of concern, including safety and enforcement; damage from increased camping, especially dispersed camping; protection of wildlife habitat and fishery health; and future expansion.
Besancon described the concept they’ve developed so far, including recreation strategy principles and management direction.
They divided the Fish Creek area into four zones that can be managed using different desired conditions, including visitor experience and biodiversity: three sites already possessing amenities; a north road corridor and a South road corridor divided by the Forks Fishing Access Campground; and everywhere else.
As to guiding principles, the primary objective is “to protect natural and cultural resources, ecosystems and wildlife,” and recreation should align with stewardship of those resources. Also, the level of development will decrease with distance from Interstate 90, with some exceptions, and it will remain “rustic.” Any additional development suggested by the strategy will be subject to financial resources and a public process.
The strategy would limit dispersed camping to clearly designated sites and increase the amount of camping in the two developed campgrounds. They would potentially staff one campground. Two off-highway vehicle routes would be maintained while other roads would be closed. FWP will consider other trails built purposely for hikers and mountain bikers although they can already use all the closed roads.
Bescancon said they developed this using a new framework used by federal agencies called the “Interagency Visitor Use Framework,” and chose using a strategy over a plan. Strategies don’t use indicators or thresholds to guide management actions. Bescancon said some monitoring would be conducted related to recreation damage, such as monitoring soil erosion from camping, trails and motorized vehicle routes. They would also monitor woody debris that fish need in Fish Creek to decide whether to limit floating.
That was a red flag for some audience members because of the lack of accountability.
Bruce Farling said FWP has never conducted an environmental survey of the Fish Creek property so people don’t know the current status of wildlife, habitat or fisheries. That makes it hard to set desired future conditions, Farling said.
“People like me have already seen a lot of change, and it hasn’t been good. Fewer elk, fewer whitetail deer, fisheries getting beat up a bit, and riparian-dependent species, absolutely no doubt about it, aren’t doing well. A lot of the watershed is in a restoration standing. So pretty much anything we allow in here is going to adversely affect it,” Farling said. “Don’t try to squeeze too much stuff into Fish Creek.”
A few expressed a desire for more amenities. Representatives of Western Montana Trail Riders, an off-highway vehicle group, said they wanted more OHV trails and asked if they could apply for grants for FWP to develop routes and offered volunteer labor.
Leanne Porter wanted more camping spots and creek access for disabled people. But John Stegmeier said while Mountain Bike Missoula would like developed bike trails, it should be done in a responsible manner and they weren’t pushing to create them at all costs.
“We’re not going to push to do it in places where we might end up with sediment in the watershed or excessive displacement of wildlife,” Stegmeier said. “There are limits that need to be set, and the whole landscape shouldn’t be under consideration.”
Many commenters questioned how FWP could limit dispersed camping, litter or other damage if they offer more recreation in Fish Creek. Enforcement is already insufficient and it won’t improve with more people coming in, said former law enforcement officer and FWP volunteer Glen Randy.
“I’ve never had my license checked once. There’s no way to reach a ranger, if you can even find one. But what you’re talking about is developing something that’s going to be a carnival park for people coming from everywhere to do anything unsupervised,” Randy said. “You’ll never be able to dial it back. You’ll lose that resource. Because you cannot control people if you’re not there.”
Commenter Gene Thompson suggested asking the Forest Service what has worked with managing people and what hasn’t in places like Rock Creek.
“A lot of it has to do with people are the way they are. If you don’t start (allowing) something, you don’t have to try to wind it back,” Thompson said.
Lane Garner agreed about the lack of enforcement and questioned why a recreation strategy connected with a state park should be used to manage a wildlife management area.
“You bought all this land for a wildlife management area but you’re not treating it that way,” Garner said. “People are first in this state - there’s no such thing as balanced use. I’d like to see that changed in this plan. I don’t care if it’s a fish or frog or salamander - it needs to be put in a higher priority than people’s fun and making money.”
FWP will hold a similar meeting in the Superior High School on Thursday night. To provide FWP with additional ideas, email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/fish-creek-watershed-recreation-planning.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.