Paving not popular with some

Petition continues to gather support

Staff Writer

After 20 years of debate regarding plans to pave the North Fork Road, the issue remains a contentious one for the residents of the isolated corridor and the project's proponents.

On one hand, the overwhelming majority of North Forkers remain resolute in their quest to put the brakes on plans to pave a 10-mile section of the road between Canyon Creek and Camas Road. Conversely, supporters of the plan contend air and water pollution would be greatly reduced, long-term maintenance costs would be significantly pared, and a viable alternate route for access to Glacier National Park would be created once the thoroughfare gets a much-needed makeover.

According to North Fork Preservation Association member and longtime outspoken community member John Frederick, paving any stretch of the road will have enormous consequences on bear and wolf habitats and could lead to unwanted development in the sparsely populated area.

"The majority of residents and landowners of the North Fork have said they don't want the road paved for a variety of reasons; from adverse affects on wildlife to a possible change of lifestyles as more people visited the North Fork and more people bought land and moved in as a result," Frederick recently wrote.

Frederick said as more people move in to the area, animal habitats are infringed upon and with more people having access to the North Fork, recreation and other uses of the backcountry are likely to produce more human an bear encounters. "Bears (that come) in contact with people keep losing."

In late May, project supporters got a shot in the arm when a House Appropriations subcommittee approved a $2.4-million appropriation to facilitate the project.

Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., one of the project's governmental supporters, said paving the road would provide tremendous benefit to the local economy primarily through tourism when the Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road is eventually closed for rehabilitation.

With plans to begin the massive Park road rehabilitation project shelved for the time being, Frederick said the urgency to fund the paving project has subsided. But don't expect the North Fork residents to throw caution and doubt to the wind; the concern over the plan is as prevalent today as it was prior to the plan's release.

In their eyes, the headaches associated with the planned paving are too high a price to pay for the occasional pothole and dust-laden drive the road offers for area residents. In fact the whole situation has left such a bad taste in their mouths that a petition drive was initiated in an effort to thwart the process.

To date, approximately 650-700 signatures have been collected and passed on to various governmental entities including the Flathead County Commission and area legislators. While the numbers are significant, Frederick said more will be coming in the very near future. "I think the number of signatures will double over the next couple of weeks."

The issue, which is currently stalled in the congressional paper chain, has yet to receive the endorsement of the full committee. And though it has the support of Hill and Sen. Conrad Burns, others including Senator Max Baucus have spoken out against the paving project, Frederick added.

County Commissioner Dale Williams has requested that an Environmental Impact Statement be conducted on the matter. The lengthy document, fashioned to explore all potential environmental impacts the paving would have on the area, will cost several hundred thousands of dollars and could take years to complete.