County requests North Fork funds

But does anti-dust argument hold water?

Staff Writer

The North Fork Road may be under a foot of snow right now, but the dust of debate should really start to fly as Flathead County has officially requested $2.4 million in federal funds to pave some nine-plus miles of the road.

The county's application to the Federal Highway Administration cites as dust and loss of gravel as one of the main reasons for paving the section of highway. The request for funds also begins the formal environmental review process.

Waiting in the wings is the project's impact on endangered species such as grizzly bears, wolves and bull trout. The county makes a case for paving the road, citing a study that erosion from "disturbed soils" averages 151 tons per acre per year, of which 76 tons travel outside the watershed.

But bull and cutthroat trout, biologists note, don't spawn in the main stem of the Flathead, they spawn in the tributaries. While sediments are considered to have a negative impact on fish, no one has ever studied what, if any impact, the road has on fish in the main river. Sediments have the highest impact on fish eggs and on fry, said Mark Deleray, fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

In his own opinion, he said that the increased angling pressure from paving the road could potentially have a greater negative impact on the fish than leaving the road unpaved. Both bull trout and cutthroat trout are very susceptible to angling. Even with no fishing protection for bull trout and catch and release regulations for cutthroats, the mortality from angling could prove significant, Deleray noted.

Grizzly bear biologists in the past have also noted that paved roads in grizzly bear habitat are generally bad for bears because of the increase in human traffic.

The county also claims the paving will better serve the increased traffic to Glacier National Park, the North Fork neighborhoods, and it will be a safer highway to travel. In addition, the county received support for the project via a Hungry Horse News editorial supporting paving and a column by Larry Wilson, columnist and North Fork Road resident.

A 1998 traffic study from Aug. 28 to Sept. 4 indicates a daily average of 516 vehicles traveling the road above Blakenship Road. That average drops to 272 vehicles per day above Big Creek Road.

The county won't actually do the paving, it will be a federal project said Dale Williams, county commission chairman. The funding is available under the federal fiscal year Public Lands Discretionary Funds.

Williams said he'd be "very satisfied" if the county can get the road paved to the Camas Junction.

If it is paved, the county will look to turn the road over to the state, Williams said. Separately, Williams said the county is also looking to "save" a section of the North Fork Road that is already paved in front of the Ladenburg Ranch. The pavement is deteriorating badly and in dire need of repair. That project is not part of the new paving, however.