Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is hoping its second attempt at developing a management plan for its Fish Creek property is more acceptable to the public than the first.

On Monday, FWP’s Region 2 released a draft of its Fish Creek Watershed Restoration Strategy after about a year of development and is asking for public comment until Oct. 20.

Throughout the 87-page document, the reader is reminded that the draft is a “strategy,” not a management plan, intended to provide only “high-level guidance.” That’s what Region 2 supervisor Randy Arnold told those attending a public meeting in March.

“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.

However, once finalized, the Fish Creek Recreation Strategy will replace the draft Fish Creek State Park management plan that was issued in 2013 but never finalized.

One of the sticking points of the 2013 plan was that increased development of the state park would lead to degradation of the surrounding wildlife management area. The intractable situation was created when former FWP Director Joe Maurier decided to carve out 5,600 acres out of the middle of the wildlife management area for a state park after FWP bought the property for wildlife in 2010.

Now, a large majority of those who participated in scoping interviews last summer also emphasized that FWP should prioritize protection of wildlife habitat over recreation use. People are particularly concerned about how increased recreation could take a toll on the elk, which avoid all forms of human disturbance. Several stakeholders are concerned that expanded recreation opportunities and development will make Fish Creek a “recreation destination,” causing increased degradation to wildlife, fishery health, and the visitor experience.

“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,” said Bruce Farling, former Trout Unlimited executive director during the March meeting. “Don’t try to squeeze too much stuff into Fish Creek.”

But the strategy is focused on squeezing a bit more into Fish Creek.

Related to camping, the two developed camping areas - Big Pine and Forks - would be enlarged and campsites would be established for disabled campers, while dispersed campsites would be better defined so other areas wouldn’t become degraded. The Williams Peak Lookout is now closed but it could be rehabbed and opened to visitors. More trails specific to hiking and mountain biking might be developed, although both currently use unimproved roads throughout the area. Finally, more parking might be provided for the three loops open to motorized recreation.

Since floating is not yet established on Fish Creek, a ban would be put in place to preserve the area for wade fishing and to ensure the natural habitat, including large woody debris, is retained.

Based on public feedback and funding considerations, the timeline to achieve these various goals is divided into three phases, with Phase 1 covering projects that FWP currently has funding and resources to carry out. Phases 2 and 3 would be contingent on future funding and the need to get approval through the public process.

However, the one concern from the public that dominated almost all aspects of the strategy is the need for more FWP presence and law enforcement. There isn’t enough enforcement to hold the current level of degradation at bay, let alone if more camping and trail opportunities bring more people in.

The strategy identifies the area south of Forks Campground - which is already a half-mile into the wildlife management area - as being more remote so it would be managed for “opportunities for solitude and dispersed use.” But without enforcement, would it stay that way?

Currently, FWP has two year-round and three seasonal employees managing four state parks, 15 fishing access sites and the Alberton Gorge Special Recreation Permit system in addition to the Fish Creek complex. That means they patrol Fish Creek only once a week or maybe two times a week.

People noted that many drivers speed down the dirt roads and drive and camp where they shouldn’t. Mineral County residents said illegal activities put too much of a burden on their first responders. Stakeholders suggested that hiring a campground host could increase FWP presence and reduce conflicts.

During the March meeting, FWP volunteer Glen Randy said bringing more people in with no enforcement would turn Fish Creek into an unregulated carnival. FWP should ensure it has the manpower before implementing the strategy.

“You’ll never be able to dial it back. You’ll lose that resource. Because you cannot control people if you’re not there,” Randy said.

As with the Statewide Fisheries Plan, the only way for people to comment is through an online form at https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/fish-creek-watershed-recreation-planning.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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