A federal judge has denied an injunction that would have banned overnighting on the gravel bar southwest of the Blankenship Bridge on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, a scattered camping area that has seen significant growth in use in recent years.
US District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy ruled July 15 that the US Forest Service did not mismanage the area and did not violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act because the plaintiff, a group of property owners, who founded a non-profit organization called Friends of the Flathead River, claims.
“No party disputes that the Blankenship Bridge and Gravel Bar have seen increased public use over the past two years,” Molloy said in his statement. “Rather, the parties dispute whether this increased use has created a significant problem.”
Friends of the Flathead River filed for an injunction against the US Forest Service earlier this year, arguing that their 2005 Travel Management Plan violated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the US Forest Service Organic Act. They argued that officers had failed to patrol the Motorized Vehicle Use Area under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
According to affidavits, property owners in the area say “the scenic, geological and customary qualities of the area are under serious threat” resulting in river pollution from human and food waste, emissions and sedimentation. Illegal bonfires and fireworks have also been reported.
Friends of the Flathead River also argued that current use violates the Travel Management Rule of 2005, saying that motorized vehicle use of the Blankenship Bridge is generally limited to established roads due to the terrain and vegetation. But Molloy said, in his opinion, the travel rule allows motorized vehicles in the area.
According to court documents, Friends of the Flathead River requested a statement that the US Forest Service violated the Wild and Scenic River Act by failing to timely issue a new Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP).
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act allocates wild, scenic, and recreational areas to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and the US Forest Service stated that the injunction would contradict the recreational area designation and deny the public use of public lands.
The US Forest Service argued that the injunction “would be unwarranted and prejudicial to the public” and that the plaintiff misinterpreted the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in relation to the CRMP, both of which have broad contexts.
In his opinion, Molloy said that the US Forest Service increased patrols, installed portable toilets and put up vehicle route signs that they managed the area appropriately.
Molloy also ruled that Friends of the Flathead River misinterpreted a deadline in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that “doesn’t exist” and they claim that the US Forest Service broke the law because the CRMP is 37 years overdue.