Rough Ride On The Smith

Here’s what happens when an increasingly popular public floating river cuts through predominantly private land. By Tom Dickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
May–June 2002

For much of its length, the Smith River in central Montana flows smoothly, with hardly a ripple disturbing its quiet surface. But in recent years, this scenic coldwater tributary of the Missouri River has become more turbulent—not from rapids, but from controversy surrounding its use by recreational floaters.

The sources of this conflict show up clearly on a river map. The Smith rises from headwaters in the Castle and Little Belt mountains and flows 100 miles north to meet the Missouri 10 miles west of Great Falls. Roughly 30 miles past the town of White Sulphur Springs, the river cuts through a deep limestone canyon, where it begins to twist and turn through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery in the state.

“ We’ve floated a lot of rivers,” says Diane McDermand of Great Falls, who regularly canoes the Smith with her husband and other family members, “and this really is one of the grander sights in Montana.”

The most popular stretch for canoeing and rafting begins at the Camp Baker launch. From there north, almost all of the river’s west bank—and much of the east—is privately owned. Roughly 80 percent of the property is in the hands of several dozen landowners. The remaining 20 percent is public land, mostly held in the Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests. Half of the 27 campsites sit on the national forest property, eight are on state land, and five are on leased private land.

Land ownership is one reason the Smith River can run high with emotions. Whenever a popular public resource abuts private property, conflicts can ensue, and the Smith is no exception. Over the years private landowners have complained of trash, trespassing, wildfire risk, and, most recently, state restrictions on their use of the river. Meanwhile, floaters have chafed over what they consider special privileges granted to private landowners by the state.

Though Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is responsible for managing recreation on the Smith, the agency owns only a tiny fraction of the shoreline. To manage the river, it must work cooperatively with the larger private and public landowners—including federal officials—while meeting the needs of 4,000-plus floaters who flock to the Smith each year. Smith River management requires cooperation among parties that often don’t see eye to eye, further complicating a complex recreational arrangement.

Another important feature of the Smith River landscape is the lack of roads and access points. From the Camp Baker put-in, floaters must travel 60 miles before the next public access site at Eden Bridge. The lack of access maintains the river’s quiet and remote character. But is also means that a float can take up to five days to complete. For many people, a trip down the Smith River isn’t a weekend getaway but rather their primary summer vacation. As a result, they take seriously any threats to their river recreation.

Floating pleasures and pressures
Named in 1805 during the ubiquitous Lewis and Clark Expedition for Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, the river has long been known by anglers for its outstanding trout fishing. Beginning in the late 1960’s, however, the Smith began attracting the attention of other river users too. In a near-wilderness setting, this clean and clear river snakes back and forth between steep, 1,000-foot-high limestone walls studded with tall ponderosa pines. Elk, mule deer, black bears, and a variety of birds live in the lush valley, which also contains Indian pictographs in caves high above the river.

Recognizing the quality of the Smith River and the floating experience it provided, the Montana Fish and Game Commission (as it was then called) designated the reach from Camp Baker to Eden Bridge in 1972 as a recreational waterway, prohibiting motors. The designation added to the river’s popularity, which soon reached a point where FWP had to begin managing recreational use. Along the pristine river’s shoreline, floaters were leaving trash and human waste, trespassing on private land, and crowding the most scenic campsites.

As landowner and floater complaints mounted, the agency responded by hiring rangers to patrol the river during peak season and then by working with the U.S. Forest Service to establish overnight campsites. In 1984, FWP’s Great Falls regional office formed an advisory committee of landowners, anglers, outfitters, and recreational floaters to work out differences among themselves and advise the department on Smith River management.

As floating pressure continued to grow, so did the need for FWP to increasingly manage recreational use on the river. In 1988, the FWP Commission endorsed a management plan aimed at lessening conflicts, protecting natural resources, and maintaining the high-quality floating experience that visitors sought. The following year the state Legislature passed the Smith River Management Act, which for the first time gave FWP authority to regulate recreational floating on the river. Within a few years, the agency began requiring a fee and limiting group size, as well as the number of groups entering the river each day during the peak season from mid-June to mid-July, when high water levels make floating easier. “Those rulings made a big difference,” says John Kowalski, and advisory committee member who has been guiding on the river since 1980. “After that, there was far less crowding and trash.”

In addition, the agency granted several authorized outfitters roughly 10 percent of the available permits to purchase and sell to their clients. And it made some concessions to Smith River landowners, who were allowed to take day trips down the river without applying for a permit. Also, each day one landowner out of the several dozen total could personally take family members and up to six friends on a day trip (though overnight trips required applying for a permit like everyone else.)

The letter
Though the river’s popularity and use continued to grow throughout the 1990s, FWP appeared to have things under control. Floaters were happy, the resource remained in good shape, and landowners rarely complained. Then one day in 1999, Joe O’Neill received a letter. It came from one of the larger Smith River landowners, who wrote the FWP Smith River manager asking if the landowners’ guests could float down the river accompanied, not by the landowners themselves, but by an employee of the ranch. FWP staff read through the state’s rules for the Smith and, after consulting with other state agencies, concluded that ranch employees did not qualify as landowners. The agency wrote back explaining that it would have to be the landowners themselves who accompanied guests wanting to float the Smith. FWP also sent letters to all other landowners, clarifying what the agency contended they could and couldn’t do regarding recreational floating on the Smith.

“ Everything ignited after that,” says O’Neill.

Several landowners insisted that the agency had no authority to regulate landowner use of a river running adjacent to private property. “For us this was and continues to be a private property rights issue,” says Bill Galt, whose family has owned land along the Smith for several generations. “It doesn’t have anything to do with recreational floating. In fact, I’ve never even floated this river.”

But landowners weren’t the only ones fuming over FWP’s delineation of the state’s Smith River rules. A growing number of anglers, outfitter, and other floaters criticized the agency for granting what they considered to be special privileges to landowners for a public resource.

“ It eroded the principle of fair and equitable access,” says John Gibson, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “It’s like if I have a house across the street from a public tennis court. Should I have special privileges for using that court? Of course not. It’s a public resource, just like the Smith is a public resource.”
Landowner rights attorney Lance Lovell, however, questions such reasoning. “A more accurate analogy for (FWP’s) ruling,” he says, “would be if I owned a lake cabin on Flathead Lake and the state wouldn’t allow me to have a right of access to that lake.”

During the next year, agency staff met with landowners and others concerned about the state’s position on the Smith. “This was and continues to be a really tough issue,” says Jeff Hagener, FWP director. “We’ve been trying hard to find a reasonable solution by working with all the people who have concerns about the Smith.”

In October 2001, the FWP Commission issued a tentative rule for public comment and then, last December, adopted new regulations for the popular river.

Few of the concerned parties, however, were happy with the outcome. Some landowners expressed disappointment that the commission let stand the provision requiring them to be on day floats taken by their guests. On the other land, many floaters didn’t like the fact that FWP commission members also expanded landowner use privileges to now allow up to three landowner-guest groups to launch each day for day trips. Like a raft pressed into a boulder by the current, FWP found itself caught between those advocating the rights of landowners and those pressing for recognition of public rights to a public resource.

26 miles of easements
Despite the controversy, most Smith River landowners seem more concerned about protecting the river from overuse and pollution than about securing property rights. “Many of us are trying to enhance the wild and scenic aspects of the river,” notes Ned Morgens, the largest private landowner along the popular stretch of the river. The Montana Land Reliance has obtained open-land easements on 26 miles of the Smith River, most donated by the Morgenses and other landowners who agree to give up development rights on the land in exchange for a nominal tax break.

“ That’s a hulluva gift to the public from landowners,” says Rock Ringling, a director of the nonprofit land conservation organization, “and one that doesn’t get recognized very much.”

Tom Reilly agrees that cordial relations among landowners, agencies, and the public are essential. The FWP Parks Division assistant administrator says the agency works with several landowners to maintain leases for campsites on private land, and it is now considering the purchase of additional easements to prevent new development from marring the landscape.

“ Our plan is to use the nearly $250,000 collected so far in outfitter and permit fees to purchase additional conservation easements along the river.” Reilly says.

The agency also continues to search for new ways to reduce user conflicts and river degradation. In recent years, FWP has allowed a private vendor to sell firewood at Camp Baker as a service to floaters and to reduce trespass, recruited volunteers who provide information and deter vandalism, and surveyed floaters to learn how they rate their experience. O’Neill, the agency’s river manager, says most floaters continue to support FWP efforts to manage the river for a quality float. “The vast majority of comments we get are real positive,” he says.

That could be in part because the recent drought has kept water levels low, lessening river use and reducing crowds. Last year only 2,262 people floated the river, compared to 4,823 in 1997, when water levels were at historic highs. “The first decent water year we get,” says O’Neill, “we’ll be back to near 5,000 floaters. And that’s when we could really start to run into problems.”

Based on the state’s management plan guidelines on crowding, FWP would then have to find a way to reduce the number of people on the river. Options include reducing group size from the current 15 and cutting back on the number of launches per day. “When we have to decide who gets cut and how we cut, that’s where people could start to come unglued,” O’Neill says.

Regulating use is one of the few activities on the Smith granted to FWP by the Legislature. Reilly notes that because half of all Smith River boat camps are on USFS land, “anything we do on the Smith needs to be done in coordination with the Forest Service.”

Add to that the agency’s need to work closely with landowners on leasing campsites, and it’s clear the agency can accomplish little on its own. “FWP owns less than one percent of the shoreline along the Smith,” Reilly says. “We can’t just do whatever we want.” Reilly adds that the agency will continue to rely on public input to help work out differences among users and public and private landowners.

The biggest unknown right now is the prolonged drought. Though Montana is long overdue for wet weather, forecasters predict continued dryness well into the summer.

What is certain, however, is that every year more and more people want to float the Smith, as Montana’s residential and tourist population continues to grow. Unfortunately no one is making any new rivers—especially any as remote and beautiful as the Smith.

“ Obviously everyone in this is trying to protect their particular interest on the river,” notes Kowalski, the river guide. “But the main priority for everyone really ought to be protecting the Smith River corridor so we all can continue to have a quality experience.”Bear bullet

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.