For 50 years, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has protected segments of America’s “outstandingly remarkable” rivers. Here’s why the forks of the Flathead River are counted among the country’s most extraordinary streams.

Story by Clare Menzel
Drawn by gravity, tributaries pour through natural channels in rock and soil. Eventually, they meet and move together. They become a powerful force that thunders, meanders, and otherwise drains seaward, altering the earth’s surface along the way. What makes a river a river? Most essentially, they flow.

When the Hungry Horse Dam was completed in 1953, it backed up 34 miles of the South Fork Flathead River. Aside from generating hydroelectric power, it was also built to strategically store and release water for downstream dams. At 564 feet tall, it’s still one of the largest concrete arch dams in the United States. In 1955, the Butte-based Anaconda Company began aluminum production just north of downtown Columbia Falls, setting the stage for the city’s subsequent rapid growth and emergence as a regional manufacturing power.

In the early 20th century, “It was evident to all [conservationists] concerned that [dams] … were necessary to our growing economy,” famed Montana wildlife biologist John Craighead wrote in 1957. However, he continued, he had come to terms with how the “storing of water for irrigation, flood control, power production, and industrial use” was “in conflict with the use of water and watersheds for wildlife and recreation.”

Craighead was writing in response to proposals to dam the North Fork Flathead at Glacier View Mountain, which would have created a reservoir reaching nearly to the Canadian border, and the Middle Fork Flathead, which would have backed up the river about 11 miles behind Spruce Park, near where the river exits the Great Bear Wilderness. He spoke of the river’s unsurpassed beauty, supreme scenery, and the abundant ecosystem it supported. He argued that even though rivers are the lifeblood of wilderness country, they’re fragile — far more easily destroyed than a mountain. All it would take is an impoundment. There had been a time for dams and a certain sort of progress. Now it was time for conservation.

Locals agreed with Craighead strongly enough to halt the proposals. Craighead partnered up with his twin brother, Frank, also a conservationist and biologist, to campaign nationwide for the value of free-flowing wild rivers. Their petitions for the U.S. government to create a system of federally protected rivers led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pen on the page 50 years ago, signing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in fall 1968. The designation is not quite like National Park Service or Wilderness protections. The river is managed collaboratively, by four federal agencies. Though it doesn’t impact property rights, it does protect rivers even where their banks abut private land. Its primary function is to maintain the free-flowing condition of the stream passing by.

Altogether, the Wild and Scenic Rivers act protects less than one-quarter of one percent of America’s rivers, those that are the most “outstanding.” While 2018 marks a half-century of protection for free-flowing river segments, including 219 river miles of the forks of the Flathead, this milestone also represents 50 years of scrutiny. For many who live in or visit Northwest Montana, the value of these river corridors is self-evident. Some might think it’s unquantifiable. But, in fact, scientists, naturalists, and historians have worked for decades to identify why, exactly, this river system is just so outstanding.

Here, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the act, is a review of the three forks of the Flathead River’s “outstandingly remarkable values … to be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

1. Recreation 

Recreation on the Forks of the Flathead is “in the eye of the beholder,” if you ask Onno Wieringa, a founder of Montana’s oldest river rafting operation, Glacier Raft Company. He means that the experience is entirely up to you. “How remote do you want to be? You can go from almost an urban setting [in West Glacier],” he explains, “to a long ways from civilization.” Your adventure could be as leisurely as a cruise up the gravel road in the broad North Fork valley or as committing as a hunting trip so deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness that you need pack animals to ferry supplies. The three forks attract, in increasing numbers each year, anglers, hikers, campers, artists, and tourists — and, most of all, boaters. Within reach are lazy river-style party floats, class IV rapids punching through canyon country, and utter wilderness zen from a packraft perch.

Wingeria points out that it’d be easier for the region’s four commercial raft companies to accommodate their 300,000 annual river visitors if the forks were dammed, thereby producing more consistent flows through the season, but he says, “We’ve always prided ourselves on our unrestricted river, and the beauty and wonderfulness of the ebb and flow.” Wherever you go, the river “has that wilderness character to it,” agrees Randy Gayner, who opened Glacier Guides and Montana Raft in 1983. “It’s surrounded by wilderness. There are other rivers in a pristine state that don’t have a million acres to the north, like in Glacier Park, and [1.5] million acres to the south, with the Bob Marshall.”

The primitive character of the Flathead watershed, and the ecosystem it supports, all contributes to recreation. “The solitude, the intact ecosystems… the abundance of wildlife,” says Chris Prew, Recreation, Wilderness, WSR, Trails and Special Uses Program Manager for the Flathead National Forest. “All the [Outstandingly Remarkable] values stack up on recreation.”

2. Scenery

The assessment criteria for “scenic” value relates in large part to the absence of permanent human presence in the corridor. What flourishes in place of development is awe-inspiring: chiseled limestone shelves, tight canyons with perpetual shadows, perfectly framed views of white-capped peaks, wide-set valleys, soft sand bars, rusty red and olive green argillite, kaleidoscope-cobbled streambeds, high-contrast confluences, sunshine-dappled grassy meadows, autumn’s sunflower larch stands, blackened toothpick burns, frothing eddies, inky blue thalweg channels, luminous shallow pools, and more. John Craighead was not leading his readers astray when he wrote, “There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most scenic ‘wild’ rivers in the Northwest.”

Rafting along the Middle Fork Flathead River. Greg Lindstrom. Greg Lindstrom.

3. Wildlife

Connectedness of vast and varied habitats is crucial for indigenous Rocky Mountain species, and yet human development continues to choke off increasingly small, isolated islands of land. The Flathead watershed, a teardrop-shaped chunk of country 200 miles long and 90 miles wide, sits within the 5.7 million-acre Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which contains some of the largest portions of unbroken forest ecosystem in the contiguous United States. In addition to bridging acres upon acres of protected public land in Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and the Flathead National Forest, the river corridor itself provides an “exceptionally high quality habitat,” according to an Outstandingly Remarkable Values (ORVs) assessment prepared by local experts in 2013. “The wildlife habitat evolved with [the river],” Mark Biel, Glacier Park’s Natural Resources Program Manager, says. “It’s always been free flowing. [Wildlife has] adapted to the rhythms of the river.”

Criteria for this assessment include the density, uniqueness, and presence of rare or recently delisted species, as well as the balance and completeness of the food chain dependent on the river habitat. Big game species like elk, deer, and moose thrive in wooded river bottoms with adjacent open grassland and shrubby hillsides. Wolverines descend high peaks to hunt. The lower 48’s largest population of grizzly bears feast upon the floodplain’s nutrient-rich meadows in spring, drift into the alpine during summer, and retreat to strategic den sites come winter. The transboundary Flathead region has been called the single most important Rocky Mountain basin for carnivores, and the Nature Conservancy considers its predator-prey system “unparalleled” in the lower 48. Mountain goats, harlequin ducks, lynx — the list of fauna is familiar to locals but, as the ORV assessment claims, astounding in its “extraordinary diversity.”

4. Botany

Charismatic megafauna might carry Wild and Scenic clout, but so do plant species too small to spot from the other riverbank. Complex and diverse native plant communities thrive alongside the forks of the Flathead, as well as in uplands and wetlands adjacent to the river. The “notable composition” of this vegetation is the foundation for rich wildlife habitats and also supports soil stability, the ORVs assessment notes. Populations of rare plant species do occur in the corridor — particularly on the North Fork — such as arctic coltsfoot, meadow larkspur, sparrow’s-egg lady’s slipper, and more. Mature cottonwood stands are particularly compelling for their reliance on the fresh, regularly shifting deposits of an unimpeded river.

Fall colors along the North Fork Flathead River. Greg Lindstrom.

5. Fisheries

The three forks of the Flathead are remarkable for their “extremely rare and unique” populations of migratory westslope cutthroat and bull trout, the ORV assessment notes. “This is the last stronghold for these two native trout in Montana, and, really, in North America,” says Leo Rosenthal, Fisheries Biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. These fish, in all stages of their life cycle, are present in abundance across the watershed. “Flathead Lake is, basically, the heart,” says Pat Van Eimeren, Fisheries Biologist for Flathead National Forest. “Rivers are the arteries and veins. Fish have to migrate from the heart of the ecosystem,” where many fish live during maturity, to quieter tributaries upstream, where they reproduce.

The geology of the North and Middle Forks is composed primarily of nutrient-poor sedimentary rock, like argillite, which doesn’t create “productive” fisheries, meaning it would take fish longer to mature there — perhaps even a number of years longer — than in the lake or lower main stem Flathead River. “Having free-flowing, unimpeded streams without dams are necessary for [these species] to maintain that life history,” Rosenthal says. And the benefit of the act, Van Eimeren adds, is that it “provides longtime connectivity into perpetuity. That’s the ultimate protection.”

Regionally unique nutrient-rich limestone deposits in the Bob Marshall create a productive habitat in the Hungry Horse Reservoir, and in a curious twist, the dam prevents upstream colonization of species like brook, brown, and rainbow trout. The result is actually the preservation of the South Fork’s pristine fishery. “As a fish biologist, we seldom support dams,” Van Eimeren says. “But in this case, it’s providing some benefits for native species … You’ve got a million of acres of watershed and no non-native fish.” Despite significant threats of aquatic invasive species, immense efforts to stave off a breach of the watershed have been successful thus far.

6. Geology

Like the Alps and Andes, the mountains and valleys of Montana formed as the plates that compose earth’s crust when bent and buckled at points of convergence. The Flathead River basin’s landscape is marked by characteristics like north-northwest trending mountain ranges and sedimentary Belt Supergroup bedrock, and it represents a small piece of the North American Overthrust Belt, which extends from Alaska to Mexico. Within this larger context, the “geologic” value refers to particular “rare and exemplary” features, according to the ORVs assessment, like the Lower Middle Fork’s fossils and Goat Lick, and the South Fork’s karst features and Meadow Creek Gorge. The assessment also recognizes the riverbed’s famously bright pebbles as an “inherently unique and rare beauty.”

Rafters on the Middle Fork. Greg Lindstrom.

7. Ethnographic

Far up the North Fork near the Canadian border, many ponderosa pines along the riverbank bear human-sized, vertical scars. These markings, left behind by Salish or Kootenai people who stripped the bark to access the edible inner layer, are one many cultural sites in the river corridor, including trail networks, that help document more than 10,000 years of occupation. “These places might be wild to us today, but there have always been people there making a living,” says Tim Light, a retired Flathead Forest Service archaeologist.

Seeing historic sites in person, within the context of the river corridor and the wilderness, offers “a much deeper appreciation, more nuanced,” Light says. “You think about things differently. You’re standing there, smelling the air, looking at the views … Up in the North Fork, that was a hard life. And that’s much more apparent when you’re in the North Fork than when you’re in the museum in town.” Michael Durglo Jr., Tribal Preservation Department Head of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, stressed that while the interpretation of such sites often emphasizes their usage thousands of years ago, they are a part of living history. “We continue to carry on traditional use of sites, tools, medicinal plants and animals,” Durglo says. “These lifeways are essential to our cultural identity.”

8. History

In one view, the existence of the free-flowing North and Middle Forks is itself a historic marvel, emblematic of a paradigm shift of American conservation. “The proposed dams would have hugely compromised the landscape and covered historical sites,” says John Fraley, author of the book, Wild River Pioneers. “[The act] solidified the whole idea that we’re going to preserve this.”

Within the purview of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the “history” value refers primarily to certain historic sites from the 20th century that showcase the early history of the Forest Service and National Park Service in Northwest Montana, or the character of Montana homesteaders who used the corridor for trapping and resource exploration. “If you go visit downtown Kalispell, those historic buildings [are] part of the image and your appreciation of the town,” Tim Light says. “Same with the river.”

Historic structures include the North Fork’s Wurtz Homestead, which is available for rent by the public; the Middle Fork’s Doody Homestead, which is in ruins; and the South Fork’s Spotted Bear Ranger Station, which is still the home base for Forest Service operations in the Bob Marshall. Particularly unique sites include Montana’s only open wilderness airstrip, the lower 48’s longest historic wilderness phone line, and the original Great Northern Railway route. Many of these sites are on the National Register of Historic Places, or eligible for inclusion.

9. Water Quality

The forks of the Flathead discharge, on average, 9,699 cubic feet of delightful turquoise and teal water per second. Measured in terms of turbidity (cloudiness), temperature, dissolved oxygen, and the presence of pollution, these are some of the most exceptionally pure waters in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. “Flathead Lake, of course, receives its water from rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and Flathead Lake is renowned for its water quality and water clarity,” says Jim Elser, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station. “People love Flathead Lake because it’s one of the clearest heavily used lakes in the Western United States. It’s a popular lake, and it has retained much of its pristine quality of water, and that all depends on having low nutrient inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. [The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act] protects that famous water.”

Elser says that protections afforded by national park and wilderness complex designations surrounding the corridor help to sustain the integrity of stream flow, another important measure of water quality — the organic circulation of the stream is paramount. “Those rivers are very special because they are driven by snowmelt,” says U.S. Geologic Survey Hydrologist Katherine Chase. “We’ve got large stream flows when the snows melt in the spring or early summer and then lower flows through late summer and fall and winter. Those patterns have pretty much affected everything along the river, all the [Outstandingly Remarkable] Values.” If the proposed Middle and North Fork dams had been constructed, Chase says, “we would see very different flow patterns, which would have impacted fisheries and wildlife and botany and recreation.” It’s all about the wild flow.

MARQUEE PHOTO: Lido Vizzutti