Madison River Recreation Plan could provide economic opportunities for Ennis

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is going to develop a Madison River Recreation Management Plan – that seems to be certain.

What is unclear at this point is just what that management plan will look like. Some folks are grumbling about FWP already having a plan in mind and just going through a token public process to appease their own guidelines and a fearful and disgruntled public. I guess that could be the case, but at this point we have no other choice but to participate as much as possible in the process moving forward.

The process looks like this:

  • The next step will be the appointment of a citizen advisory committee – probably made up of 12 members – by FWP director Joe Maurier on the advice of local FWP officials.
  • The CAC will begin holding public meetings to wrestle over what a river recreation management plan should look like. These meetings will be held around the Madison River region and provide citizens multiple opportunities to comment.
  • Once the CAC is done they’ll have a draft management plan and an environmental assessment, which will then be put out for public comment.
  • The final plan will go before the five-member FWP Commission for approval.

FWP has said they would like to have this process completed within the year.

No matter your opinion, we can all agree the Madison River is crucial to the economic health of the Madison Valley. And it’s easy to see the economic importance of the fly fishing to the greater Ennis community. I understand those who have concerns that a recreation management plan will limit commercial outfitting on the Madison River. I agree with those who feel it is foolhardy to limit commercial outfitting in a difficult economic climate when there seems to be no evidence it’s having a detrimental impact to the river or the fishing experience.

That said; I believe this planning process could provide an opportunity to create a framework for more and diverse developed recreation along the Madison River corridor that could benefit the local area, both socially and economically.

The Madison River from Ennis Lake to the Varney Bridge has been designated by Montana Audubon as an Important Bird Area. What this essentially means is the diversity and quality of habitat supports a wide variety of bird species from cavity nesters that use the cottonwoods spring and summer for raising babies, to raptors that hunt the waterways, to the waterfowl that use the lake and river as stop over points in their migration south. On any day, any time of year, it’s not uncommon to be able to see close to 50 species of birds all within sight of the river.

Ennis is a hotbed for birding activity. Why not use this recreation planning process to identify areas along the river corridor that could be points of interest for birders. Maybe this planning process could be the first step in developing a birding and nature trail that clearly guides people on a birding and wildlife viewing experience in the Madison Valley.

Other successful birding and nature trails in Montana include the Bitterroot Birding and Nature Trail in Ravalli and Missoula County and the Northeastern Plains Birding and Nature Trail in eastern Montana.

These trails aren’t actual trails, per se. They are wildlife and bird viewing spots delineated on a map, with many accessible by vehicle and completely undeveloped. A trail like this could provide opportunities for a variety of businesses in the Ennis area.

Interestingly enough, more than 20 percent of Americans consider themselves birders, according to a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report. Other interesting facts from that report are that in 2006 birding enthusiasts pumped more than $35 billion into the economy.

Other recreation opportunities could include a series of dispersed camping sites along the public land stretches of the Madison River. These sights could offer floaters a unique opportunity to enjoy extended trips on the river, while providing local guides and outfitters more options for trips.

Maybe there could even be a Madison River Canoe Trail that could be combined with the Birding and Nature Trail allowing birders and outdoor enthusiasts an experience truly unique to the Madison Valley.

This recreation management plan must also address the social problems created by the beer and giggle floaters on the lower stretch of the Bear Trap Canyon. Every year local law enforcement personnel write tickets for drinking and driving, underage drinking and a variety of other violations. Floater parking causes traffic problems; and unfortunately it seems like someone dies in a tragic accident along this stretch of river each year.

Managing recreation on this section of the Madison River is going to be a crucial part of the recreation planning process. The status quo isn’t going to work any longer. But a solution won’t be easily reached.

One thought may be restricting alcohol on this stretch of the river. I cringe at this, because I certainly enjoy a beer while floating the river. However, it could be time to restrict alcohol in the Bear Trap stretch at least during the peak use in summer months.

It may be true that we didn’t ask for this river recreation management plan, but the process has begun and a plan will be developed. It’s important to voice your opinions and concerns, but it’s equally important to steer this process in a direction that will have the most benefit to the local community and economy.

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