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Fighting for asphalt-free way of life

North Fork paving opponents don't want a new 'speedway' to Glacier

of the Missoulian
(appeared August 13, 1999, page B5)

     POLEBRIDGE - Here in the northern wilds, at least 1,000 people like their potholes just fine, and they would take dusty washboards over speedy asphalt any day.
     An anti-paving petition, aimed at plans to pour a path of hot tar along Glacier National Park's western fringe has generated more than 1,000 signatures -- not bad, some say, for a place with about 80 year-round residents.
     At issue, paving opponents say, is a way of life for residents, and life itself for some species. Proponents, on the other hand, want to smooth no road; for residents, certainly, but also for the tourists they say will use the road as a gateway to Glacier National Park.
     "I would say well over 60 percent of the people who live here don't want it paved," said John Frederick, who operates a hostel in the small community of Polebridge. "It might be as high as 70 percent, but it's hard to say. I've been surprised how deep the anti-paving sentiment went, though. People I never thought would put their names on a petition like this have gladly signed. The message is becoming pretty clear."
     But the sheer volume of petition pages has Flathead County Commissioner Dale Williams wondering about the truth of the tally. Williams insists many of those whose names appear on the petitions have never been to Polebridge, have rarely bounced and vibrated their way up the dust-choked corridor, have seldom seen the hazy pall that on dry days can hang over the nearby North Fork Flathead River.
     And neither, many locals say, has Williams.
     It might seem odd to hear of a neighborhood that demands its road not be paved, but then this is an odd neighborhood. North Fork Road winds through some of America's last wildlands, snaking toward the Canadian border and the remote outposts of Polebridge and Moose City. To the west the Flathead National Forest stretches for miles; to the east Glacier National Park's peaks rise up from river's edge.
     It is home to several endangered species, including wolves and grizzly hears, not to mention 80 or so hardy human souls who choose to live somewhere just past beyond. In late May Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., announced that a House appropriations subcommittee had earmarked $2.4 million to pave 9 miles of North Fork Road. The request, he said, had come from Williams and other county commissioners.
     It was not a new idea, and in fact caused considerable consternation when suggested 20 years ago. Then, the notion was blocked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with approving plans that may impact animals listed under the Endangered Species Act. In 1980, the FWS rendered a "jeopardy" biological opinion on the plan to pave, saying asphalt would jeopardize the future of grizzly bears and gray wolves,
     The potential residential growth that nearly always follows pavement, combined with increased vehicle traffic and higher speeds, would be too much for some species to handle, the report concluded. Many believe the same concerns still exist, and point to the decades-old document as a good reason not to improve the road.
     The river valley, they say, is the last remaining place in the lower 48 states where all native animals still survive, and has the greatest densities of grizzlies anywhere in the nation.
     Opponents say the asphalt would change their community, and note that $2.4 million is about seven times the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's annual budget for the regional grizzly bear recovery office, which oversees a four-state region including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington.
     To have Congress spending money to jeopardize bears that Congress is spending money to protect makes little sense, they argue.
     But Williams also is concerned about local money, especially tourism dollars that might be lost if portions of the Going-to-the-Sun Road are closed for repairs. Having an alternative route paved, he said, would generate money for businesses around the park.
     And with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration just around the corner, Hill said, "every avenue we have to accommodate tourists is good for Montana."
     But perhaps not good for the North Fork. "The North Fork of the Flathead River is a special place," the petition reads, "rich with wildlife. We wish for it to remain so. We only ask for a safe, well-maintained, gravel road with prudent speed limits, not a 70-mph speedway from Columbia Falls to Glacier National Park."
     The 1,000 or so who have signed, Frederick said, have chosen to do so because they enjoy the wild quality of the area. The petitions are just there to be signed, he said; no one is pushing a pen on people.
     "We've kept this low-key," he said. "But the response has still been very good."
     So good, in fact, that Williams began to suspect foul play. After seeing the first 750 signatures, he called some of the out-of-towners whose names appeared, he said, and learned some of them had stumbled onto the petition on the Internet. Some, he said, had never been to Polebridge.
     And as for the locals, he said, they have to realize progress is inevitable.
     "We don't necessarily do our road projects by polls," he said. "The petition is interesting, but the biggest mob doesn't always win."

Last update: 15 Aug 1999