Parks board advances new Smith River rules | 406 Politics | helenair.com – Independent Record

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Floaters navigate the Smith River Canyon.
The Montana State Parks and Recreation Board on Thursday advanced a pair of management proposals and a bump in application fees for the Smith River.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is updating the management plan for Smith River State Park, citing increasing use of the river and a need to mitigate those impacts. The board voted to advance rules that will prohibit overnight camping at the launch site at Camp Baker and require pack-out of human waste in approved containers. The board also voted to increase application fees from $10 to $15, with the increase going to fund a human waste collection system at the Eden Bridge take out.
With Thursday’s vote the proposals now go out for public comment from March 4-25 at www.fwp.mt.gov, with a final vote expected at the board’s May meeting. Changes go into effect for the 2023 season.
The Smith River is Montana’s only river requiring a permit to float. Each year a lottery awards launch permits for the multi-day trip through stunning limestone canyons and camping at designated sites along the bank.
But demand for the river has increased significantly over the last 15 years, from about 5,000 applicants to a record of more than 15,000 in 2021. This year applications were down but remained the second highest on record at a little under 14,000.
Over the same time period the average group size has increased as well. Each float party is limited to 15 people, but the increasing difficulty in drawing a permit has correlated with floaters finding their way onto the river through bigger groups.
In 2011 the average group size was 6.4 people. In the record year of 2021, that surged to 8.7. In terms of raw number of floaters, that equates to a 65% increase from about 4,000 to more than 6,600.
Vice Chair Mary Moe of Great Falls participated in the advisory council that helped push some of the changes. During the process she kept hearing the same phrase: “We’re loving it to death.”
“I hope we take care of it because it’s such a beautiful thing,” she said Thursday.
Moe touted the diversity of the board from landowners to outfitters to recreation groups who rolled up their sleeves and quickly came to consensus on the waste management issue. That will replace the long-running latrine system that is unique to permitted rivers in the Lower 48.
“I thought it was going to be a lot harder sell than it was,” she said of agreement on moving to a pack-it-out policy.
Limiting camping to day-use only at Camp Baker aims to mitigate what had become a challenging situation for managers. The site was not designed for overnight camping and had become increasingly crowded with large floating parties, vehicles and trailers.
Neighboring landowner Ty Wells told the board that after FWP moved to prohibit camping in 2020 due to the pandemic, many of the issues including damaged fences and trespassing quickly waned. He voiced opposition to a carve-out in the rules that would allow camping during hunting season from Sept. 1-Nov. 30, saying he was concerned about campfires causing a wildfire. Staffing the site could alleviate some of those concerns, he indicated.
Former Smith River Park manager Doug Haberman highlighted the controversy that came as the state decided to start limiting floating and said the proposals were on the right track in terms of concentrating on conflict areas. Managing the Smith is really about social science, he said.
“You’re managing people, and that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing on the Smith,” he said.
The proposals also saw support from Colin Cooney with Trout Unlimited, who also praised the proposal process as a member of the advisory committee.
Some other proposals that came out of the planning process were not recommended by FWP at this time, but could come back to the board in the future. Those could include ways to decrease the number of floaters by incentivizing smaller group sizes in some way, as well as limiting floating during the early muddy season which tends to beat up campsites. Another proposal calls for changes to the permit lottery system to help those who have waited the longest to draw a permit, such as a bonus point system to increase draw odds.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.
State Reporter/Outdoors Reporter
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.
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Applications to float Montana’s Smith River were down this year after a record high in 2021, but still ranked the second highest on record.

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Floaters navigate the Smith River Canyon.
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