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Skyrocketing demand for floating the Smith River has state managers considering some significant changes in the future.
The Smith flows north from the launch at Camp Baker near White Sulphur Springs, etching through nearly 60 miles of soaring limestone canyons in one of the most spectacular floats in the state. The promise of a beautiful semi-primitive trip has brought ever-increasing interest only amplified by an outdoor recreation surge during the pandemic. Now those charged with maintaining one of Montana’s most famous natural wonders are deciding how the Smith will be managed for the next decade and beyond.
Montana State Parks has launched an update to its Smith River State Park and River Corridor Recreation Management Plan. The plan drives policies on the river to balance opportunity with undue impacts to natural and cultural resources.
A decade is a typical lifespan for most recreation management plans, said Colin Maas, who manages Smith River State Park for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The state convened an advisory committee when the plan underwent significant revisions in 2009. A new advisory committee, which includes some new and former members, will meet three times to offer input on the plan update.
“We’re not looking at reinventing the wheel and rewriting the whole plan,” Maas said. “What we decided to do is that we knew there were a few little issues that we cherry-picked that we knew we needed to take another look at.”
Montana State Parks and the advisory committee will tackle four main issues: Whether to disallow camping at the Camp Baker launch site; mandating pack-out of human waste; various resource protection measures at boat landings and campsites; and changes to the lottery system to increase future odds for those unsuccessful in drawing a permit.
When it comes to recreation management, the Smith rivals any river in the West in terms of available data, said Maas. The Smith is the only river in the state that requires a lottery permit to float, meaning from year to year, the state knows how many people apply for a permit, how many people float on each permit, when they float and where they camp. A floater survey also provides ample information on river crowding and satisfaction with the experience.
What all that data is telling Maas and others is that both interest and use of the Smith has soared.
Smith river trends
The Smith’s floating season is relatively short and varies from year to year depending on runoff. Generally the prime floating season lasts from mid-May to mid-July. In some years it can run longer. In some years, such as the drought of 2021, it runs shorter.
Floating the Smith first means drawing a permit. Applicants identify desired launch dates and wait in anticipation to see if they, or in many cases one of their friends or family members, is successful.
In 2011, about 5,600 people applied for a permit. In 2020, the number neared 11,000. In 2021, an unprecedented surge pushed applications over 15,000.
Up to 15 people may float on a single permit. In 2011, the average group size between private and outfitted parties was 6.4 floaters. In 2020, that average topped 8.7 floaters.
“That may not sound like a lot but when you say there’s a maximum group size of 15 and you increase by one whole person, that can be fairly significant over the course of a season in terms of total people floating the river,” Maas said.
The total number of floaters over the last decade went up 65% from about 4,000 to more than 6,600.
The trends offer some concerns for Maas, as one of mandates the Legislature required when it passed the 1989 Smith River Management Act is a certain level of solitude.
“A lot of what we do is social science and we’re trying to not only protect the resource and provide a recreational opportunity for the public, but in places like wilderness areas and also on the Smith River, we’re trying to manage for a certain experience level and a certain level of solitude,” he said.
Still, not every float party is after the same experience. Some early-season floaters willing to brave spring snow and rain may have a different reaction to increasing boat traffic than a large family group floating the warmer days of June or July, Maas said.
Despite increased use, floaters still love the Smith River. Surveys given to each party do show an uptick in number of boats sharing the river. But floaters’ overall satisfaction with their experience really has not shifted, with 98% either satisfied or very satisfied in 2020 — a figure similar to past years.
Brandon Boedecker of Helena owns PRO Outfitters and has spent 28 years floating and working on the Smith. He has seen the trends bear out but still believes managers are maintaining the balance.
“I don’t think my perception is that it’s getting crowded,” he said. “They’ve done a good job as far as monitoring and doing the permit system. But I feel like, group size we’ve definitely seen an increase over the years. It used to be two people would go down the Smith. Now it’s like if somebody draws a permit they want to fill it, they want to invite everybody.”
As the pandemic led to upheaval in Montana last year, outdoor recreation became a welcome outlet for countless people. FWP believes restrictions led to new people trying new outdoor activities as well as those who picked up a fishing rod or boat paddle for the first time in years. Officials think the recreation swell is likely here to stay with 2021 bringing similar if not new highs in terms of visitation and participation.
In both 2020 and 2021 Montana State Parks made two changes at Camp Baker as COVID-19 safety measures. First, overnight camping was prohibited. Second, selection of boat camps which was traditionally assigned in-person first-come, first-serve, was done over the phone after randomly selecting the order of parties.
Maas and others have long had concerns about Camp Baker, and see an opportunity to potentially apply what has been learned during the pandemic to the site’s future management.
Camp Baker was never designed for overnight camping. Camp sites are not delineated, areas where vehicles drive are not “hardened” to help with rutting or erosion, and the small size of the area often causes groups to camp in close proximity. Increasing group size and more vehicles has only exacerbated the issues.
Maas has also noticed some other factors contributing to concerns at Camp Baker since he began as a river ranger in the late ’90s. Vehicles seem to have generally gotten bigger and more and more people bring rafts on trailers. When he started on the river, most floaters carried rafts and frames inside or on top of vehicles and inflated and assembled them at the launch.
“With the average groups size increasing, the number of vehicles and people, it really started to come to light to us as managers that it’s almost going to become unsustainable to provide, it’s becoming more challenging to manage for day use and camping at Camp Baker,” he said. “So that is one of the issues that we are discussing with our planning advisory committee … whether we should go to make Camp Baker just a day-use site only just for launching and eliminate the overnight camping.”
Regardless of whether camping is prohibited or limited in some way, Maas believes the site needs some work to better manage use. That could include delineating loading areas or putting down gravel or blacktop to mitigate impacts from vehicle traffic.
Maas felt the feedback has been mostly positive and the temporary closure of camping at Camp Baker has garnered some supporters of making the move permanent.
“For me as an outfitter watching what Camp Baker had evolved in to, it was nice having it closed to overnight camping,” Boedecker said. “It was a better experience for guests and I think a better experience talking to my friends and family that floated the Smith during that process, not having everybody there not having so many boats, tents, it’s definitely been a better experience from our standpoint.”
Some in White Sulphur believe the camping closure also meant more people staying in town and visiting local businesses.
Barry Hedrich is a White Sulphur native and owns Two Basset Brewing. While perhaps not as big an impact as hunting season or the Red Ants Pants music festival, restaurants around town welcomed the additional business.
“I did talk to most of the restaurants in town and their opinion was that it has had a significant impact on their businesses, everything from definitely to an extremely big difference,” he said. “Anything that brings people whether to White Sulphur whether you know it’s the spa, the restaurants, the ski hill, the recreational opportunities here is definitely beneficial for our business. That’s what makes it work is people.”
The community has some safety concerns about floaters arriving late at night and trying to find their way to Camp Baker in the dark on the narrow two-lane highway from town, Hedrich said. He sees an opportunity for White Sulphur to continue to attract more floaters as well.
“I think it’s probably more up to us rather than the state mandating somebody do it is what can we do to make the community more attractive so people say, you know what, we are going to go spend a night in White Sulphur Springs and enjoy what’s there,” he said.
Alaina Morrison owns Twin Sisters Trading Co., which sells sporting goods and rents rafts and other equipment to floaters. As chair of the local chamber of commerce, she has heard similar reports of more floaters staying and spending money in town. While exciting, she was measured in her assessment of the overall impact.
“I have heard from other business owners that it’s brought more business to town, but I don’t know that it’s been overwhelming,” she said, adding that she estimates about 1 in 5 raft rental parties stay in town. “People are discovering Montana and the Smith River and White Sulphur, I think that’s really good and we welcome that, but I don’t’ know that it’s some magical economic solution to White Sulphur.”
Morrison also has some concerns about displacement of campers. Many floaters turned to the Fort Logan fishing access site on the Smith as an alternative to Camp Baker. As the only other viable option for many locals to access the river, she questions whether some of the issues facing Camp Baker have only been pushed elsewhere.
“I do have some personal frustration — I don’t love the fact we just got 20 campsites taken away in our county because we really don’t have other access to the Smith River,” she said. “(Fort Logan) is one of my favorite places to hang out and you just really can’t go there when there’s a million floaters there.”
The permit lottery
As Smith River permits have become more difficult to draw, contributing to larger group sizes, Montana State Parks has tasked the advisory committee with weighing in on the lottery system.
The main idea proposed is a bonus point or weighted-draw for the lottery. The concept could operate similarly to many special hunting permits, that essentially for every year someone is unsuccessful in the draw, they would have a better change the following year.
Because the the Smith is what Maas called a cherished resource to people both in and out of Montana, he said it’s about “trying to create an opportunity for folks who haven’t been able to float the river for multiple years or who’ve never floated it before in their life to get on the river.”
Along with the increase in overall applicants, more applicants are coming from out of state. When Maas started on the Smith roughly 80% of applicants came from Montanans. Now, it’s about 65%. There are not any firm plans one way or another to provide resident preference but it is a piece of data available to the advisory council, he said.
How to handle human waste was a topic of much discussion when the state last tackled the management plan in 2009. Ultimately managers decided to keep a system of latrines provided at each campsite that are both difficult and expensive to maintain.
On some multi-day float rivers in the West, floaters are required to pack out human waste. Commercial products are available for the task.
More Smith River floaters mean more use of boat camps, boat landings and put-in and take-out sites. More floaters are also turning to “shoulder seasons” where permits are easier to draw, but at a time when the ground is often wet and muddy. Trampling vegetation early in the year can leave areas bare, invite noxious weeds to grown and lead to erosion, Maas said. He also suspects floaters may increasingly look to earlier seasons due to concerns about climate change and potential impacts on later flows.
“Obviously in any kind of heavy-use corridor especially when you have designated boat camps like we have, you’re going to have resource impacts,” he said. “When we see more use in early season, in that shoulder season spring season, that’s a time when the vegetation in the camps is more vulnerable.”
Potential solutions could include delineating or hardening camping areas at boat camps as well as at landing sites. Rotating camps or acquiring new camps could also factor into the plan.
“When you take that many people down, you’re going to love those camps to death,” Boedecker said.
The advisory council met for the first time in July ahead of plans for FWP to begin preparing an environmental assessment beginning in September. The Montana Parks and Recreation Board is expected to take up the assessment in October and release it for public comment with a potential final decision in December.
FWP anticipates implementation of the updated plan will occur over the 2022 and 2023 float seasons.
More information is available at https://fwp.mt.gov/stateparks/smith-river/management.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.