The state of Montana wants to balance recreation and resource conservation in western Montana’s largest state park and adjacent state lands.
And the state wants the public’s thoughts on how to do that.
Fish Creek State Park, a parcel of more than 5,600 acres about 35 miles west of Missoula on the south side of the Clark Fork River and Interstate 90 between Alberton and Superior, is part of a larger complex of more than 45,000 acres of state land in the area.
The park is surrounded by the 35,317-acre Fish Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and about 6,000 acres of state trust lands. The amalgamation of state lands borders the Lolo National Forest. The area also includes campgrounds, fishing access, and the Alberton Gorge Recreation Area.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is working with the University of Montana to gather public feedback on how recreation and conservation should be balanced and managed on the variety of state lands in the Fish Creek Watershed through an online survey.
The anonymous survey is open until December 20 and can be accessed at bit.ly/3NJeEcw. FWP partnered with UM to act as its lead planning team, coordinating with agency specialists who have expertise in areas such as fisheries or recreation. The department hopes to have a plan developed by March 2023.
FWP Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold said he has worked to engage stakeholders and user groups, including Mineral County residents, motorized off-road groups, hunters, anglers, and mountain bikers. Mountain bikers are a group that has long expressed interest in the recreational potential of the Fish Creek area.
In a recent newsletter, MTB Missoula, a nonprofit mountain bike trail maintenance and advocacy association described the park as “an ancient forest with tremendous potential for trail development.” The organization encouraged mountain bikers to complete the survey to express “support for trail development in the park.” The group advocates for “at least 20 miles of singletrack to create a destination-worthy travel destination” and notes the variety of other recreational potential at Fish Creek.
“While on the edge of MTB Missoula’s service area, we are excited about the prospect of the overall experience that could be created at the park,” the group said. “Imagine a network of great trails, scattered camping along a trout stream and whitewater rafting within an hour of Missoula. Fish Creek State Park has that potential.”
Arnold said Monday that because of the variety of types of state property in the area, “what it really needed was a focused effort” to develop a management plan beyond the boundaries.
“I was really hoping that we could do this on a broader level across our property,” he said, adding that the management planning process could be a model for FWP’s new Division of Parks and Recreation. “We could look at the Fish Creek watershed as a demonstration that Fish, Wildlife & Parks could be in a good position to manage recreation and resources at the same time.”
Last year, a reorganization of FWP placed WMAs and fishing access sites under the Division of Parks and Recreation, alongside state parks such as Fish Creek.
This provided greater opportunity for more uniform management across different lands, Arnold said. He also pushed for the revamped recreation management planning process, he said, along with recreation users showing by their actions where they want to recreate.
Much of the Fish Creek watershed was former timberland that the state acquired from The Nature Conservancy in 2010. The area, etched with a web of logging roads, has the potential for mountain bike trails and the use of all-terrain vehicles.
According to Arnold, an interim management plan for the park and WMA was put in place when the agency initially assumed responsibility for the area. In the mid-2010s, he said, a “visionary, forward-looking” management plan for the park was submitted for public review as a draft with a set of alternatives.
That prompted “a very strong reaction” from the public, Arnold said. Commenters were very concerned that watershed quality would be degraded by increased recreation. The goal of the eventual plan, he said, is to balance recreation and be truly sensitive to watershed resources.
“We felt it very strongly and we want to do it right,” he said. “The previous planning process really identified the concerns that people had about developing too much recreation in Fish Creek.”
Public concerns, agency reorganization and changes in administration, and the coronavirus pandemic halted the planning process. But during the pandemic, he said, FWP staff often reported, “Hey, this place is getting a lot of attention and there’s a lot of camping in the summer … and it really doesn’t have the management footprint that it needs.”