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Camping on the Clearwater
becoming an issue

August 19, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder


On most sunny, summer weekends, youíll find tents lining both shores of the Clearwater River, as I presume they have for a thousand years.

And, when you arrive at Harpers Lake, you find just what you'd expect. You've got cars filling the parking lot, swimmers and sunbathers along the developed beach, and a few people fishing from boats or more remote reaches of the lakeside.

When you drive on past the lake to the campground, you find most of the well-maintained campsites occupied. At a glance across the river, you conclude that the opposite shore is just as thoroughly occupied.

Whatís wrong with this picture?

I'd say that depends on whom you ask. Maybe not a lot, or maybe quite a bit. But, this situation is a recreation and wildlife management dilemma for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). And, it's a dilemma we may not be able to brush aside for much longer.

You see, except for one sliver of a property corner, FWP owns and manages both shores of the Clearwater River, from Clearwater Crossing Fishing Access Site (where Highway 200 crosses the river) to within one-half mile or so of Elbow Lake. (FWP no longer owns the western shore of Elbow Lake, since an exchange with Montana DNRC in 1996.)

Although both shores of the river are owned by FWP, the people camped at the Harpers Lake Fishing Access Site (FAS) are paying a fee of $5 per night. The campers waving to them from the opposite shore are not paying a camping fee.

The same is true at Clearwater Crossing FAS, where campers are required to pay the $5 fee. Those who camp on the opposite shore are also camping on FWP property, but they are not required to pay a camping fee.

Talk about a classic case of the West Shore not knowing what the East Shore is doing! Well, I suppose it looks that way, but to me this issue is not just a simple matter of communication and consistency.

The Harpers Lake and Clearwater Crossing FASs are managed by FWP's Parks Division for public recreation. There are vault toilets and improved roads, and both sites are regularly maintained to a high standard by Parks Division staff. FWP managers realized many years ago that locations such as a river crossing along a major highway (i.e., Clearwater Crossing) and an easily accessible lake where adult rainbow trout are occasionally stocked (i.e., Harpers Lake) will always attract lots of public use, regardless of whether these sites are developed and maintained or not. So, FWP long ago chose a strategy to manage the impacts of concentrated human use by establishing the Harpers Lake and Clearwater Crossing FASs.

Although camping continued to occur on FWP property along the western shoreline, the level of use historically was low and did not attract much notice by managers or the public.

However, as recreation pressure increased in the 1990s, FWP instituted a statewide fee schedule for camping at certain FASs to help cover the increasing costs of recreation management. Coincidentally, more people "discovered" the west shore of the Clearwater in the past few years. Whether some people are purposely camping on the west shore to avoid fees at Harpers and Clearwater Crossing, I can't say, but I also wonder if people aren't generally finding it harder to find scenic places they can drive to for a family outing.

Camping along the west shore of the Clearwater comes under the control of FWP's Wildlife Division because this land is part of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. As such, not only is there no fee for camping, but there are no improved roads, no designated campsites, no regular maintenance of makeshift campsites, and no toilets. The land is owned and managed for wildlife habitat, not concentrated recreation.

But, the number of campers on the so-called Game Range side of the river may sometimes exceed the number at Harpers and Clearwater Crossing.

Is this a problem? Only if it's a problem that these same numbers of people are defecating in the bushes and along the river, instead of into well-maintained vault toilets. Only if it's a problem that when the roads are temporarily impassible, people drive wherever necessary to get around problem spots, instead of finding well-drained, well-maintained access arteries and turnarounds. Only if it's a problem that people are shooting and whooping it up at all hours of the night, while these activities are more closely regulated in the designated campgrounds across the river.

And, only if it's a problem that stream-dependent wildlife may find it difficult to find adequate habitat for birthing and rearing young when human recreational activities are increasing along the entire length of FWP ownership on the Clearwater.

Maybe this doesn't sound too serious. Maybe FWP's Wildlife Division just needs to manage campers on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range like the Parks Division does. Maybe so, but it would cost just as much for the Wildlife Division to do so, and without the benefit of camping fees. So, maybe we should just annex the west side of the Clearwater into the Harpers Lake and Clearwater Crossing FASs. But Parks Division labor and dollars are already stretched thin.

And, maybe it would be something of a loss to no longer have a less-regulated camping opportunity along a beautiful and accessible Montana river.

As I said earlier, managing increasing recreation along the lower Clearwater River is a tough one. But, I also think itís something youíll be hearing more about in the coming year or so as we try to meet our obligations to youand your wildlife resources. And, hopefully, we'll be hearing from you as well.

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