The Forks of the Flathead and their tributaries are currently the most important places for packrafting in the United States. This is because the Flathead National Forest is, for the first time since 1980, revising their management plan, and it seems certain that backcountry floating on the Forks of the Flathead (especially the South Fork) will be impacted. And by this I mean regulated, with the current document laying a firm foundation for permits.
The full document (interesting, if lengthy and turgid) can be found here.
The river management plan (mandatory for B&P readers, and rather shortly and more to the point) can be found here.
Comments (which I strongly encourage everyone to send in) can be emailed to this address.
The crux of the river management plan is that neither the Wilderness Act nor the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act provide for specific criteria. Rather they emphasize ephemera, types of user experience, which the relevant agencies should seek to cultivate. Anecdotally all Forks of the Flathead have experienced significant growth in floating in recent years. The forest service has collected data over the past decade to corroborate this, and has proposed limits in daily use, which if exceeded during trials in the near future, would mean permits.
The limits seem reasonable; for the South Fork they would be “Encounters with no more than 3 parties per day during 60% of the peak use season,” or “Encounters with no more than 15 watercraft per day during 70% of the peak use season,” with the peak use season being June through August. It has been quite a while since I’ve been on the major rivers in high summer, but other folks have reported seeing 20+ rafts in a day on the South Fork this year.
My concerns here are less to do with permits, or limits on floating, than with how those are implemented. Obtaining a permit ought to be practical for packrafters regardless of the nature of their trip, be the route conventional or new. It seems to be the way of things in the outdoors that at least small crowds are finding their way so many places. Will the South Fork have enough traffic to reach the above thresholds in 2020? 2025? It seems that we will soon find out.