Montana’s Flathead River: why the Designation of “Wild & Scenic” is Important

When you think of Glacier Park, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of towering peaks, rugged mountain goats, and crystalline lakes. If you’ve been here before, you might also think about the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River, and their wild and scenic beauty. 

What you might not know, though, is that “wild & scenic” is more than just a descriptor. For the Middle and North Forks, it’s an official designation – and has been since 1976. Meant to keep these rivers open, clean, and protected, the wild & scenic designation is an essential safeguard for Montana’s natural spaces. Let’s review how the whole “wild & scenic” designation came about!

The History of the Wild & Scenic Designation

Congress created The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. The sweeping legislation package had one goal: to preserve U.S. rivers with “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historical, cultural or other similar values” in a free-flowing state.

Specifically, the Act sought to safeguard the unique characteristics of each designated river, while also opening them for appropriate use and development. 

The Various Designations

The wild & scenic designation indicates more than a pretty shoreline. Here’s how the government classifies wild, scenic, and recreational rivers:

  • Wild Rivers. These rivers are undammed and typically inaccessible except by trail. They have unpolluted waters and primitive watersheds and shorelines. 
  • Scenic Rivers. These rivers are undammed, as well. They have shorelines and watersheds that remain mostly primitive and undeveloped. The difference is that these rivers are accessible in places by roadways. 
  • Recreational River Areas. These rivers are easy to access via railroad or road and may have some development on their shorelines. 

Wild & scenic rivers meet both of the first criteria. Regardless of classification, federal designation means the government takes organized efforts to protect the elements that led to its designation. 

Recreation is Conservation: How Enjoying the Flathead River Helps Protect it

The beautiful thing about conservation acts in the United States is that they don’t bar recreation. Instead, these regulatory designations open wild places to carefully managed recreation, which helps ensure conservation efforts. 

In 1960, Wallace Stegner, acclaimed writer and conservationist, wrote his famous “Wilderness Letter” on the importance of federal protection for wild places. This letter then went on to help establish the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964 – a precursor to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. 

Here’s an excerpt we love from the “wilderness letter”:

If I may, I should like to urge some arguments for wilderness preservation that involve recreation…We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea…

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

Here at Great Northern Whitewater, we couldn’t agree with Mr. Stegner more. And we like to do a whole lot more than “drive to the edge of the wilderness and look in.” Our team is committed to the preservation of these world-class rivers, and our rafting trips help further that mission. 

When we take people down the Middle Fork, we help people see how incredible these spaces are and help educate them about their importance. Awareness is the first step to protection. The more people love these rivers, the more likely they are to remain in a protected state for future generations. 

Come Enjoy Glacier Park With Us

Get outside and get in touch with your public lands! Enjoy Glacier Park and the Wild & Scenic Flathead River with our team. Contact Great Northern Whitewater today to learn more about our rafting and fishing trips, and to book your stay in Glacier Park.