Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is developing a new management plan for all state land in the Fish Creek area instead of treating the state park differently from surrounding state land.

On Friday, FWP announced that an online survey was live to take public input to inform future decisions on all state land in the Fish Creek area. This effort signals the start of a new process for FWP, now that the newly created division of Parks and Recreation has taken over wildlife management areas and fishing access sites in addition to state parks.

Previously, wildlife management areas were overseen by wildlife managers in the respective FWP regions. Fishing access sites were also managed by region. All state parks had their own management plans.

This upcoming management plan would apply not just to Fish Creek State Park, but also the wildlife management area, two fishing access sites and some sections of state trust land in the area owned by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. 

FWP Region 2 supervisor Randy Arnold said the timing of the decision to develop the plan was spurred by the increased recreational use and related damage of the Fish Creek area in the two years since the COVID outbreak, in addition to FWP’s recent reorganization.

“Now, state parks is under Parks and Recreation, so it seems today that we’re in a new place. I’m excited that we’re looking at it in a comprehensive way, because the public doesn’t see the difference between the colors on the map,” Arnold said. “Where there’s public interest in more facilities or better facilities, we can address where we might be able to put those and reduce impacts. Not looking at it as if the state park offers something remarkably different from the wildlife management area, but instead what do we want to avoid for impacts on the state park, just as we want to avoid those impacts on the fishing access sites or the other state land.”

In the past, FWP would develop its own management plans and conduct the associated public processes. For example, in 2013, FWP started developing a management plan for Fish Creek State Park but never finalized it.

“We had a loud response over some of our concepts and themes on opportunities to develop Fish Creek. Based on the response, we held off on it. We didn’t have the resources to develop it anyway, so we thought, ‘Let’s pause on that a little bit,’” Arnold said.

Now, to develop this new, larger management plan, the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana is leading the process and conducting the survey on behalf of FWP. Unlike other scoping efforts or public comment periods, all of the survey responses are anonymous. The survey closes Dec. 20.

The survey asks what sort of impacts people were concerned about in the Fish Creek area and what development people want to see, including developed campgrounds, vault toilets at dispersed camping areas or near all campsites, designated campsites where dispersed camping is occurring, and various trails including mountain bike, non-motorized or motorized with associated parking areas. There’s also an option for no amenities.

UM graduate student Kaitlyn Reintsma recently conducted a dispersed-campsite inventory of Fish Creek and found about 75 unregulated sites, some of which contribute to habitat damage and waste issues.

Another question asks if people would support management actions to protect habitat, including a floating closure on Fish Creek to preserve woody debris for fish, seasonal habitat closures for wildlife, and road closures.

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The planning process actually began in July and August “with outreach to stakeholders invested in the future of the Fish Creek Watershed,” according to a FWP webpage. FWP and UM consultant Charles Besancon of Global Park Solutions met with the stakeholders on July 28, Aug. 17 and Oct. 12 and listened to their ideas.

The stakeholders include 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.

Now the online survey will add more opinions, although the source of those opinions won’t be known. Once the survey results are processed, the UM team can start drafting a plan. Arnold said that the university is driving the schedule, but he thinks they’d “probably re-engage the public on draft results early in 2023.”

FWP acquired the Fish Creek property in 2010 from The Nature Conservancy, although it had originally belonged to the Plum Creek Timber Company. Former FWP Director Joe Maurier decided 5,600 acres in the middle of the 41,000-acre wildlife management area should be a state park.

Since then, the park has been managed under an interim plan that lays out rules common to all state parks. When FWP tried to write a more specific management plan in 2013, many commenters pushed back against all the development proposed in the plan. Among other things, the proposal included construction of a 40- to 60-unit RV campground; a hut-to-hut trail system with rental yurts and access for hikers, bikers and off-road vehicles; and promoting the park as an off-highway vehicle or OHV park.

Hunters and anglers objected to all the development of the park that would affect the surrounding wildlife management area and streams. Montana Trout Unlimited objected, saying the 2013 plan would “result in increased fishing pressure on Fish Creek -­ which is a small, sensitive stream -­ and harm to watershed integrity, wintering elk and deer, migration of forest carnivores and traditional uses that Montanans have long enjoyed on lower Fish Creek.”

According to its website, Global Park Solutions is a Missoula-based company that supports the growth and strengthening of national parks and protected area systems across the globe.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com. 

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