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Paving the North Fork Road?
by John Frederick

There is a controversy today in Flathead County over paving of the lower ten miles of the North Fork Road between Canyon Creek and Camas Road. In 1982 an environmental impact statement (EIS) was done on paving this section of the North Fork Road, complete with a hearing. The majority of residents/landowners of the North Fork did not 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 of the new road.

Today the ten-mile section of road "slated" for paving is not the horror it was in 1982, because in the mid-1980s the roadbed was rebuilt. It is relatively smooth today as the county has kept that section in good repair. If the county grades the road with occasional maintenance, it is smooth; but if the county does not grade the road it can be rough. It is as simple as that.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a jeopardy opinion on the North Fork paving in 1980 and it was expanded to a larger document in 1982, saying that the increased development associated with a paved road would harm the threatened grizzly bear and the endangered gray wolf. The wolf is doing better now, but the grizzly bear is doing worse with the loss of ten bears in the ecosystem last summer and several more lost a few weeks ago. The jeopardy statement will be reviewed when requested by the "action agency", probably the U.S. Department of Transportation. This decision will take five to six months and will be binding on the project.

The reasons for paving the road are obvious: cheaper long-term maintenance, dust abatement, and a smoother ride-but at what cost? Will it hurt the grizzly bears? Probably so, as more humans are pushing into prime grizzly habitat. Educating tourists and new residents is fine, but usually lags behind the problems created. Is spite of the best efforts, bears in contact with people keep losing and few people want that. A primitive, gravel road keeps the status quo.

What else will happen to the North Fork of the Flathead River valley? Accelerated increase in river use and many more people will want to buy land and build homes (a realtor's dream). The travel time saved by the paved road will allow North Forkers to commute to Columbia Falls for work. In other words, the North Fork becomes more accessible in many ways, which includes increased hunting and fishing, increased firewood gathering and huckleberry picking, and increased use of the back country.

Two things seem to have been forgotten in the paving issue: a gravel road is safer than a paved road by virtue of slower speeds and, if the country commissioners are concerned about dust abatement, they could have used benign substances to dust-coat at least those places where dust may reach the river.

Is this paving necessary? No. Will it help Columbia Falls merchants along the way? Maybe, but it is often easier and shorter to enter the Park from West Glacier. Merchants at West Glacier are probably not thrilled with a new road that bypasses them.

What can you do if you don't like paving of the North Fork Road? If you are a resident and/or taxpayer in Flathead County, write Commissioner Dale Williams, 800 South Main, Kalispell MT 59928, or phone the County Commissioners' office at 406-758-5503 to register your dissatisfaction.

It was learned recently that Representative Rick Hill (R-MT) has arranged for an appropriation in the House and that Senator Conrad Burns managed to get money in the Senate for the amount of $2.4 million. Both appropriations have come out of subcommittee, but not yet out of full committee. Hopefully, Congress is usually more open to giving the public information than it was this time. You may write, e-mail, or phone these congressmen, as well as Senator Baucus (D-MT). It would be good to send copies to other congressmen, as well.

It is not over yet . . . unless you do nothing.


Last update: 07 Jul 1999