January 04, 2017 at 7:23 pm | By SAM WILSON Daily Inter Lake
The first of five scheduled hearings to discuss a slew of proposed motorized-watercraft restrictions throughout Montana drew strong condemnation from dozens of Kalispell-area residents Tuesday night.
About 30 attendees took to the lectern to speak in opposition to the proposed Quiet Waters Initiative, a body of regulations that would curtail motorized boating or ban the use of personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis, on many popular river segments and creeks throughout the state. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved the petition last May after it was brought forth by the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
More than 80 people packed into the regional Fish, Wildlife and Parks office in Kalispell by the beginning of the hearing, and the sign-in sheets recorded a final tally of 124 attendees.
Many of the speakers characterized the proposed regulations as part of a larger effort to lock certain users out of public lands.
“Truth is, these people would like to make a big park out of Montana and shut Montanans out,” Mills said during the hearing. “Those in authority, Montana fish and game and the commissioners, need to listen to the will of the people and vote this thing down. It’s nothing but control.”
Echoing others who accused Backcountry Hunters and Anglers of pushing an agenda that is out of touch with Montana’s sportsmen, Mills added, “I suspect they don’t know any more about an elk’s hoof from a fish’s fin.”
Mark Weed, a Kalispell business owner whose merchandise includes personal watercraft and other boats, said despite the department’s finding of “no direct impact” on businesses, he would substantially affected by a local drop in motorized boating. Weed also noted his membership in the Eagle Bend Yacht Harbor, which he said includes 200 to 300 members who would be impacted.
“If they can’t use the lower river, which is what everybody does when Flathead [Lake] is rough — which is most of the time — they’re going to go somewhere else. They’re going to go to Idaho or Washington and not spend their money here,” he said.
Only one speaker did not speak in opposition. But Bigfork resident Henry Oldenburg stressed after the meeting that he didn’t know the regulations well enough to endorse them, either.
“I can tell you that the boats that come out of Bigfork and Somers ... [it’s] pure silt sucked out from behind the riprap surrounding my place,” he said, adding that he’s seen river otters, loons and other wildlife disappear from his riverfront property over the years.
Mike Howe, who owns a fishing charter business near Bigfork and writes a semi-weekly column in the Daily Inter Lake, read from a letter of opposition to the regulations signed by 18 Republican state lawmakers from the area.
“Unless there is compelling, site-specific evidence supporting a valid need for restrictions, traditionally accessible public lands and waters should remain open and accessible for public use and enjoyment,” the letter states. “The ‘Quiet Waters Initiative’ does not demonstrate a compelling need, or adequate citizen support, for the closures its backers are suggesting be imposed upon the outdoor recreation communities of Montana.”
Former Flathead legislator John Sinrud called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers a “political organization” and attacked the Fish and Wildlife Commission for approving the petition.
“This is absolutely incorrect, inappropriate and wrong for these organizations to do this, and for the organization under Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Fish and Wildlife Commission, to actually even try to introduce this stuff,” Sinrud said.
NO MEMBERS of the Fish and Wildlife Commission were present at the meeting, and no representatives from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers spoke in support of the petition rules.
But in an interview on Wednesday, the organization’s statewide chair, John Sullivan, defended the restrictions as a proactive step to reduce future conflicts with non-motorized water recreationists and wildlife.
“We believe there could be better regulations to limit that damage to habitat, and more importantly, reduce conflicts to certain user groups,” he said. “You can imagine walking in to go fish, say on one of the tributaries to the Bitterroot, and having someone run a jet boat up it where the river could be 20, 30 feet wide. That creates a safety issue.”
Many speakers at the meeting also criticized the Fish and Wildlife Commission for approving the petition despite the fact that three of its four members’ terms ended on Jan. 1. They remain on the commission until Gov. Steve Bullock announces his appointees, after which the new or returning commissioners will be subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
A fifth commission seat has remained vacant since last year when one of the commissioners resigned, citing health reasons.
Sullivan maintained that the initiative’s introduction as a petition brought before the commissioners — as opposed to being enacted through the Legislature — would allow for more public input.
“I don’t want to see a legislator who has no rights to legislate how Fish, Wildlife and Parks manages the land tell them what to do,” Sullivan said. “That’s the most democratic way, really, so everybody has the right to voice their opinion about it and the commission will enact what they feel is in the best interest of the public.”
Several residents that spoke at the meeting, however, noted that the agency had recommended that the commissioners not approve the petition last year.
In its 2015 recommendation that the commission deny the petition, Fish, Wildlife and Parks stated the proposal would “drastically restrict waterways without demonstrating any necessity to protect public health, public safety, public welfare or to protect property and public resources.”
Jennifer Snyder, the hearing officer for the meeting, said the public comment period is being extended to Feb. 12 to accommodate the level of public interest in the initiative.
Following that deadline, the commission will reconsider the regulations before they are enacted into law. Snyder said the commission could decide on the Quiet Waters proposals as soon as April.
To view the full list of proposed rule changes or submit comments online, visit sos.mt.gov/ARM/Register.
Comments can also be emailed to QuietWaters@mt.gov or mailed to: Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Attn: Quiet Waters Petition; P.O. Box 200701; Helena, Montana, 59620-0701.
For more information, contact Kaedy Gangstad at 406-444-4594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.