Once the Clark Fork is no longer at its current (as of press time) and dangerous 40-year-flood stage, Missoulians will head to the river to tube, swim, fish, boat or surf during the hot summer days. Many will drive to access sites just outside of Missoula. Many others won’t bother leaving town, leading to the dual problems of choked official river-access points and mistreated unofficial ones.

Christine Oschell, Region 2 river recreation manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says that FWP, the county, city, Clark Fork Coalition and Five Valleys Land Trust have begun meeting to talk about the possibilities for in-town river access.

“The urban river is different, and we need to recognize that, and we want to get out ahead of issues, because we don’t see use decreasing,” Oschell says.

Oschell says problems with “pioneered” sites — i.e., unofficial access points — include erosion. “They’re usually a trail that goes straight down the bank, and ideally it wouldn’t be that way, because it can erode away that bank pretty easily once people start using it a lot.”

That, plus a lack of trash cans and bathrooms, means that evidence of human use piles up, leaving it to organizations including Five Valleys and the Clark Fork Coalition to orchestrate cleanups. “We think that if we had access sites that had more infrastructure and were more obvious that we would get a lot more compliance, too,” Oschell says.

Six years ago, the Missoulian reported on the city’s efforts to transform the West Broadway Island, which is technically a peninsula, into an accessible public beach. That property is part of the city’s conservation lands, according to the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Chris Behan. “There is a plan that is currently under floodplain permit review to further reduce weed species and introduce native grasses, shrubs, and trees that are more appropriate in a riparian area,” Behan writes in an email. That plan includes adding a trail along the irrigation ditch that runs parallel to the island and potentially replacing the Burton Street foot-access bridge and adding another pedestrian bridge to access the island. It is unique in being the only sand beach area in the city, but since it’s intended to be conservation land instead of parkland, Behan writes, it wouldn’t have a lot of formal improvements.

On a recent sunny day, before the river rose, one sunbather ventured onto the island to read while reclining on his backpack. Lounging by the river at an attractive, uncrowded spot in downtown is a natural impulse, and the as-yet-unnamed coalition of local governments, state agencies and nonprofits wants to make sure that impulse can find harmonious expression, Oschell says. “If you’re from out of town and you show up to Missoula and you see the messaging that comes out of the office of tourism showing you people recreating on the river that runs right through Missoula, when you get here it would be nice if it was obvious, if there was a system of access points.”

Staff Reporter

Susan Elizabeth Shepard lived in Missoula from 2008 to 2011 before returning in 2017 to work at the Independent. She is also a two-time resident of Austin, TX, and Portland, OR, with an interest in labor, music and sports. @susanelizabeth on Twitter.

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