By Michael Babcock
Tribune Outdoor Editor
Four new public access points on the Missouri River are planned in the Great Falls vicinity.
One, called the East Side Access between Morony Dam and Carter Ferry, and another near the Chouteau County Fairgrounds in Fort Benton, may be in place this fall or early next year.
Each of the four sites is expected to have at least a hard-surface boat launch, a vault toilet and a parking lot.
Planners say the Fort Benton site will have both a hard-surface boat launch and a canoe/raft carry-in launch.
Of the other sites, one will be between Cascade and The Dunes Fishing Access Site and the other will be between Ulm and the Big Bend of the Missouri, perhaps in the area of the Canoe Camp” where Lewis and Clark stopped to build a couple of dugout canoes in the summer of 1805.
All of the sites will be open in the next three to four years. The new access sites are coming as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing of the hydroelectric dams on the Missouri. That process began in 1989, before the Montana Power Co. sold the dams to PPL Montana, and is expected to be complete this summer.
The sites are meant to make up for certain recreational opportunities lost to the public due to the use of the river for generating electricity. Under the relicensing, no boating, floating, sailing or swimming will be allowed on Cochrane, Ryan or Morony reservoirs.
“Historically, the reservoirs are not used for boating, floating, sailing and swimming,” said recreation and safety consultant Elvin “Speed” Fitzhugh. “It isn’t as if you took a resource that was being used by the public and made it off limits. You could probably count the number of people who have (boated) on one hand.”
Fitzhugh, formerly of Montana Power Co. and now of American Public Lands Exchange, a Missoula consulting firm, said that because the reservoirs are designed to provide power at peak demand, the water level at the dams can change dramatically in just a few minutes. That makes recreational activity on the reservoirs unsafe.
He said that in 1986, Congress passed the Electric Consumer Protection Act that requires all resource concerns, such as recreation, wildlife and energy conservation be considered equally during relicensing of the dams.
“FERC calls it protection, mitigation and enhancement of the resource,” Fitzhugh said. “Those four river access sites were mitigation for excluding boating, floating, sailing and swimming on those three reservoirs. We are providing alternative sites.”
MPC developed the plan with help from a “river access site committee” made up of the City-County Planning Commission; Fish, Wildlife & Parks; the Bureau of Land Management; the Medicine River Canoe Club; Walleyes Unlimited; the Missouri River Flyfishers; Russell Country Sportsmen, and the Great Falls Kayakers.
Each of the sites is budgeted to cost about $200,000 and that money ultimately comes from utility ratepayers.
The East Side Site, which is directly across the river from Portage Coulee, seems to generate the most interest among users.
The site is a cooperative project among a number of parties: Chouteau County designed and graveled three miles of road; private landowners provided easements; PPL will arrange for engineering and construction of about one mile of road down to the access, and FWP will build and maintain the access site.
The last mile of road down to the East Side site has not been put in and Fitzhugh said until it is, the access is not a “done deal.”
“The roads to the site need to be finished before the easements are in effect,” Fitzhugh said.
The process of relicensing and thus creating the access began under MPC ownership of the dams, but PPL took ownership of the dams last fall. And even though the relicensing document probably won’t be issued until July or September, PPL plans to carry on.
“PPL Montana traveled around the state talking with folks and assured them that the new company was going to honor all of the license conditions,” said Jon Jourdonnais of PPL Montana. “We look forward to cooperating with those agencies and the public in implementing those measures.
Mike Aderhold, regional supervisor for Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said increasing access to the Missouri River is one way to disperse the number of people who are expected to come to the river to mark the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.
“If those places are available, people will spend time here trying to re-create the adventure,” Aderhold said.
“We’re saying there are other places. You don’t all have to go to the Wild and Scenic portion of the Missouri to capture the experience,” Aderhold said.
While the public generally cheers any new access, landowners often are reluctant because of the potential for vandalism, fire and litter.
“It isn’t always good to create more access,” said Jourdonnais. “You have other impacts and you begin to diminish the experience.
“We have to balance recreation opportunities with protection of fisheries and wildlife habitat and use levels. We have to balance all these things when we look at new recreation sites not just from a public use perspective.
“We have to include other things that have been a little bit a of a challenge. These projects shook out and they make sense and it is good to see them hitting the ground.”
Besides those four access sites, PPL Montana plans to put in a carry-in boat ramp at Black Eagle Island and a take-out point across the river at Giant Springs.
“For that half-hour float that people might want to do in the evening, the opportunity will be real nice,” Fitzhugh said.
PPL also will work with FWP to enhance the FWP property at Carter Ferry.
“These are all linked together in a kind of system of sites,” Fitzhugh said.
Aderhold said the number of access sites will give recreationists an opportunity to mix and match their trips on the river.
Other access to the Missouri can be found at:
The Dunes above Ulm;
The Ulm Bridge FAS;
White Bear Island, an undeveloped FWP site;
Broadwater Bay; and
Great Falls, MT
June 15, 2000