The Middle Fork Flathead: Protected AND Threatened

The Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Flathead River is the go-to fly fishing destination for many visiting Montana, but trains carrying crude oil and the lack of a safety agreement and plan could devastate this special place.

Fly fishing the Middle Fork Flathead. | Photo: Lee Cohen

This guest blog by Ben Long is a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series on the Middle Fork Flathead River.

It says a lot about just how difficult conservation is when you consider that the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in Montana is simultaneously one of the most protected rivers in America, and one of the most threatened.

The Middle Fork is the only place where I’ve ever caught a fish by accident, with my teeth.

Rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, MT. | Photo: Lee Cohen
Rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, MT. | Photo: Lee Cohen

I was knee deep in the Middle Fork in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. My two companions and I hired a local pilot to ferry us and our gear in to a wilderness airstrip in his Cessna. From there, we rafted 30 miles in three days to US Highway 2.

The evening rise of cutthroat trout was popping all around. The forested slopes and peaks were aglow in the sunset. To take my camera out of my pocket, I held my rod sideways in my mouth, like a pirate biting a cutlass.

Suddenly, I felt a jolt through the roots of my teeth. The line with a golden stonefly pattern had been drifting downstream and a trout hit it hard. I jerked my chin to set the hook, spit out the rod, and landed the pan-sized westslope cutthroat trout.

This is truly wild, native fishery. The ancestors of these trout pioneered these waters as the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago. They have been hungry all the while. I caught and released 24 cutties in less than 90 minutes.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1968. Today, the law protects more than 12,000 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states. One of the very first rivers recognized under the law was the Middle Fork Flathead.

The Fork is 92 miles long. The uppermost 45 miles or so flows through a formal Wilderness Area, where all commercial and industrial development and even motorized machinery are prohibited by an act of Congress. Wilderness is the gold standard of preservation for our public lands.

The lower 45 miles of the Middle Fork, its northern flank is Glacier National Park – again a landscape with gold-standard habitat protection.

But that same 45 miles – from Bear Creek to Blankenship Bridge, the Middle Fork is also flanked by a railroad track on its south bank. The Great Northern Route is one of the busiest freight routes crossing the West. It crosses treacherous and rugged country, steep forests prone to landslides, avalanches, blizzards, floods, and forest fires.

And there’s the rub.

BNSF oil trains along the Middle Fork Flathead River. | Photo: Roy Luck (flickr)

The Great Northern Route has been subject to dozens of train derailments over the years, some of them overturning dozens of rail cars. It’s just dumb luck that so far those trains have been carrying mostly inert materials. (Most notoriously, the trains spilled tons upon tons of corn, which was buried, fermented, and was feasted upon by bears who got drunk on the sour mash.)

Now, the Great Northern Route is being used to haul crude oil from the Bakken oil patch to coastal ports. The contents of these trains is toxic, explosive, and carcinogenic. Rotten corn is nothing in comparison.

To be fair, the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad has taken steps to improve safety on the Great Northern Route. Derailments, after all, are costly problems.

At the same time, as someone who loves the Middle Fork dearly and cherishes clean water, the idea of an oil spill seems like playing a forced game of Russian roulette. So far the firing pin has clicked on empty chambers. Next time?

The Middle Fork is one of America’s finest, most pure bodies of water. It is a special place that deserves special attention and a special plan to keep it pristine.

Please join us in urging the Federal Railroad Administration to protect the Middle Fork Flathead by developing a safety agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe that helps prevent train derailments.


Author:  Ben Long

Ben Long is a conservationist, father, and outdoorsman in Kalispell, Montana. He is senior program director for Resource Media. You can follow him on Twitter: @BenLong1967.

One response to “The Middle Fork Flathead: Protected AND Threatened

  1. Please send any information you can.
    I have been employed by Micro-Trains Lines, of Talent, Oregon for 23 years. We design and manufacture N Scale Model Trains – the foremost in the world.
    Maybe we can somehow advocate for a positive outcome through our marketing and production of an appropriate project or projects. Possibly, “Buy a Buffer Car to help save the NorthWest Watershed”.
    I am from Montana (Kalispell, Missoula and Bozeman) and am a strong advocate of saving the watershed of the Flathead Valley and the watershed of the NorthWest.
    Please respond, I can see that MTL can be an important supportive voice for this cause.
    Thoughtfully, Susan Daley

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