Fish, Wildlife and Parks commission rejects hovercraft on Bitterroot River

The Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission denied James Crews’ petition to make rule changes that would allow hovercraft to cruise up and down the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers. (KPAX image)

Locals on fishing rafts, kayaks and inner tubes won’t have to dodge hovercraft on the Bitterroot River and a short stretch of the Clark Fork River below Kelly Island.

On Monday, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission denied James Crews’ petition to make rule changes that would allow hovercraft to cruise up and down the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers.

Crews, a Bitterroot Valley resident of 20 years, tried to convince the commission that hovercraft are unique and shouldn’t be roped in with the rest of vehicles defined as “boats” or “watercraft.”

The reason he wanted that is because all motorized boats on the Bitterroot are limited under a rule set in 2011 to having a 20-horsepower motor so they can’t go very fast.

“We’re asking you to define hovercraft because it’s not in your code,” Crews said.

Crews argued that single-engine hovercraft large enough to carry two adults and two kids needed at least a 55-horsepower motor because 33% of the generated air is needed to lift the vessel off the water while the rest of the air produces thrust.

Once hovercraft get going fast enough to get above the water, they float on a cushion of air, so Crews said they were less destructive than motorboats. No propeller cuts into the water, and hovercraft produce less noise – very little noise penetrates underwater – and leave no wake once they’re riding on top of the water, Crews said.

Crews said smaller hovercraft were available but more expensive, harder to get, and because they are less able to fight wind or rough water, they can be less safe. He said he shouldn’t have to buy a different boat to follow the rule.

Crews went on to say that all the fishing access sites on the Bitterroot should be improved to allow hovercraft access.

“As for family recreational motorboating or recreational hovercraft use, it is not a consideration (on the Bitterroot). What is considered acceptable is motorboat usage going downstream for waterfowl hunting,” Crews said. “The outside is in us all but only if you hunt or fish.”

None of the people who responded to Crews’ proposal were in favor. Some had taken part in the 2011 public forum that produced the rule after some people had tried to argue for allowing jet skis and jet boats on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers. The 20-horsepower motorboat allowance was a compromise between those who wanted no motorized boats and sportsmen who wanted some access to islands and river braids.

Clark Fork Coalition Science Director John DeArment said a lot of people, including the Clark Fork Coalition, had worked hard to overcome differences and hammer out the 20-horsepower rule.

“We think the restrictions are working well,” DeArment said. “We think carving out a special exemption for (hovercraft) is a mistake, would be bad for the process, sort of making a mockery of the 2011 process that got us here today.”

William Ritchie, who lives 150 feet from the Bitterroot River near Florence, said he was critical of the 2011 rule when it first came out but has come to appreciate it and doesn’t want hovercraft to be exempt. He said they could be dangerous on a river that erodes and moves around as much as the Bitterroot River.

“I assume eventually there would be more hovercraft and people taking advantage of it, and it will increase erosion and people tramping up on the banks. That is the difficulty we are looking at as far as our house is concerned,” Ritchie said.

Retired Forest Service ranger Chris Grove, who also lives along the Bitterroot River, said he’s witnessed very little conflict between the many users of the river because they’re all headed in the same direction, riding the flow downstream through sharp turns and narrow sections. Hovercraft go a lot faster, both up and downstream, which could be a safety problem for swimmers and tubers.

“This is about a small group proposing this for their own self-interest. It does not serve the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run. It’s not about improving the conditions on the Bitterroot River,” Grove said. “When you consider high-speed upstream use and families coming down the river, conflict is going to be inevitable. When people feel they’re endangered or their kids are endangered, things get pretty intense. I don’t look forward to that kind of conflict in front of my house.”

Kevin Farron of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said an exemption for hovercraft would leave the commission and the state open to having to make allowances for other new machines.

“Our biggest concern is the technology creep that this petition represents,” Farron said. “Just because there exists today the technology and personal vehicles making it effortless to exploit each nook and cranny of our public waters and public lands doesn’t mean we should permit them.”

The Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, Trout Unlimited, and the Montana Wildlife Federation were also opposed.

Missoula Commissioner Tim Aldrich remembered the 2011 debates over motorized use and said the large number of people using the river without motors presented a problem for allowing faster boats. With time, that’s only gotten amplified.

“It’s amazing the number of people on that river,” Aldrich said. “The 20 horsepower was an offer to say this will work in the fall for the duck and goose hunger. But it won’t permit what I think you’re wanting to permit by changing the rules.”

The commission voted unanimously to deny the petition.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.