They say no river flows in a straight line. However, if you drew a line to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it'd lead straight to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, right here in Glacier Country, Montana.
When someone thinks of Montana, there's a good chance they're thinking of the Flathead River, whether they realize it or not. It streams from the top of the Rocky Mountains through high peaks and wide valleys, past grizzly bears and cowboys.
Maybe you picture yourself floating through the clear whitewater of the Middle Fork. Or fly-fishing in a solitary eddy off the North Fork as the river flows swiftly by. Maybe you're relaxing with a special friend next to a campsite on the Lower Fork, admiring some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States.
Either way, it's a vision of clean, clear wilderness and a free-flowing river that has been protected for the ages as part of a monumental legislation to preserve the nation's most prized rivers. And the effort to do so was born right here on the Flathead.
An idea born in Montana
In the early 1950s, the "Craighead Brothers", as twins Frank and John were known, were preeminent wildlife biologists studying grizzly bears in the Flathead area. This was (and still is) prime habitat for bears along the corridor of the Rocky Mountains, which runs from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon Territory. When a dam was proposed at Spruce Park on the Middle Fork of the Flathead, the brothers saw a need for the protection at a federal level for free-flowing rivers like this one.
Kascie Herron, Northern Rockies Conservation Associate for American Rivers, says the Craighead Brothers advocated about the vitality of rivers for water, recreation and fishing. And while national parks were already entrenched, including Glacier National Park which runs along the west bank of the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead, the Brothers saw a need for a companion legislation.
"We had the Wilderness Act but that didn't necessarily protect the rivers that flow through wilderness," she says. The idea was that a wilderness that didn't protect its watersheds was not fully protected. For recreation as well as education and conservation, river protection was key.
While the Middle Fork Flathead wasn't one of the first rivers to be protected under the new National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed by Congress in 1968, it was the birthplace of the idea for it (it was officially designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1976). Today, there are 208 rivers in 40 states protected under the act, including iconic rivers like the Missouri, Allagah, Salmon and Snake.
It would forever protect the free-flowing nature of certain rivers that possess outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values. And that's worth celebrating.
The Flathead is magic
Born in the Crown of the Continent, the Flathead River definitely flows through outstanding wilderness. It's protected on both sides by wilderness areas and by Glacier National Park. Due to its protection, the Flathead River system exemplifies wilderness, solitude and a place to get away from it all.
Every summer, thousands of people come to spend time on this river. The upper 98 miles of the North Fork are classified as "Wild", meaning it's free of impoundments and very hard to access. This is the quintessential protection of nature in its wildest state. Another 40 miles are considered "scenic" (shorelines and watersheds are largely primitive and undeveloped but not difficult to access) and more than 80 miles are listed as "recreational", all from the Canadian border to the Hungry Horse Reservoir.
"I'm so emotionally moved by this river," Herron says. "It's a really special and truly wild place. If you're seeking a place of truly wild nature, solitude, and a place that looks the way it did - as far as we can tell - for eons, this is the place to come."
Celebrating throughout the summer
A series of events are planned throughout the summer of 2018 to mark the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act's 50th anniversary. From film festivals to a river clean-up on the Middle Fork in West Glacier, lovers of the Flathead are eagerly spreading the good news.
"There's so much love for these rivers," Herron says, adding that she feels the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is something that ought to be applauded.
"Our predecessors had the foresight to know when a place is special and to do what it takes to make sure it would be kept that way forever," she says. "I think that's important."
Photo: Kascie Herron is Northern Rockies Conservation Associate for American Rivers.
Glacier Park Collection shares the love
Our team at Glacier Park Collection is full of eager river people. Living and working next to the stunning Middle Fork of the Flathead River in West Glacier, Montana is a privilege we enjoy and cherish daily. Here are some of the ways we’re spreading our river love this summer:
- We’re partnering with Backslope Brewing Company for weekend pint nights all summer long at both Freda’s Bar and the Brewery in Columbia Falls to raise awareness about the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act’s 50th anniversary. Together, we’ll be donating a portion of sales of the sales to American Rivers. And you can float the Flathead from Freda’s to Teakettle Park, just a few blocks from Brewery!