Popular boating areas always suffer from over-use and degradation, so the Bureau of Land Management is considering charging fees for float trips through Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.
Friday is the start of a 30-day comment period to allow the public to weigh in on proposed user fees for camping and floating through the National Wild and Scenic portion of the Missouri River.
Boaters would need to buy a Special Area Permit to travel between Coal Banks Landing, 41 miles downstream from Fort Benton, and the James Kipp Recreation Area. The charge would be $5 per watercraft for day use and $4 per person per day for overnight use.
Additional fees of $10 and $5 a night would be charged for camping at the Coal Banks Landing and James Kipp Recreation Area campgrounds, respectively. The James Kipp area is the only site that has charged a small fee in the past.
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was designated in 2001, and several remote campsites dot the 108-mile stretch between Coal Banks and James Kipp. Over the years, the BLM and the Friends of the Missouri Breaks National Monument have maintained and upgraded several of the campsites, especially in the upper White Cliffs section between Coal Banks and Judith Landing.
In its 2008 Resource Management Plan, the BLM anticipated the need to create a permit and charge fees but chose not to do so until now.
Now with continuing Congressional budget cuts, the BLM needs more money. Last year, Central Montana Resource Advisory Council approved the fees, all of which would be used for expenses within the river corridor.
"We've been able to maintain but we don't hire as many staff. We used to have six river rangers but we're down to three this year. If it weren't for the Montana Conservation Corps and Indian Education interns and volunteers, that's all we'd have," said BLM Supervisory Outdoor Recreation Planner Mark Schaefer, "We've been limping along, keeping our head above water but eventually there comes a time when you have to (raise fees)."
According to a Federal Register summary published Friday, "Maintaining a natural-appearing recreation setting, a quality social setting, and enhancing the visitor experience on the river while protecting natural resources requires substantial Federal investment. The BLM is committed to finding the proper balance between public use and the protection of resources."
Each year, between 4,000 and 5,000 boaters self-register on the Missouri River, but many more use the river and either don't register or use the river's amenities during the off-season, Schaefer said. As with other popular rivers in Montana, steady public use is taking a toll on the monument.
The public is supposed to pack waste out, especially in the more remote section from Judith Landing to James Kipp. But some boaters don't clean up after themselves, leaving "toilet-paper gardens" in camping areas for others to remove.
To alleviate the problem, BLM workers have installed vault toilets at sites where road access is available and composting toilets at other sites. As a result, they need funds to maintain the toilets.
"It's really expensive to get them pumped. One guy comes out of Great Falls and it sometimes takes three hours just for him to get there," Schaefer said.
A number of campsites are on small public areas donated by local landowners, so the BLM has to maintain fences that mark the boundaries and keep campers separated from livestock. BLM employees also have to keep good relations with the landowners to ensure the campsites can remain.
Finally, during the past two years, hundreds of cottonwood saplings have been planted at different campsites with the hope that they'll provide shade in the future. This summer, the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument have sponsored a team to regularly water the new trees.
Additionally, the BLM has had to repair the Judith Landing boat ramp and camping area after a few winters when ice jams gouged into the river bank.
All that takes money.
The BLM is not the first agency to consider permit fees to compensate for public use. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks not only instituted permit fees for the Smith River State Park in 1993 but limited daily use to eight parties a day. FWP is also now considering requiring voluntary permits as hundreds of boaters and floaters pack the popular lower stretch of the Madison River each summer. A working group report concluded that FWP may eventually have to limit daily use.
Fortunately, the Missouri River isn't overcrowded yet. But the BLM needs financial help to maintain the wild and remote experience.
Submit comments by Sept. 21 by emailing them to email@example.com or mailing them to 920 NE Main, Lewistown, MT 59457.