Late last month, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission killed a massive regulatory overhaul for waterways across the state. Chairman Dan Vermillion, prior to calling for a final vote, lamented the animosity the proposal had generated in the outdoor recreation community. Looking back on a year-plus of hard work, Jeff Lukas doubts whether another approach to the Quiet Waters Initiative would have played out any differently.
"I'm not sure if a smaller-scale project would have received less criticism," says Lukas, Montana chapter coordinator for the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "When it comes down to it, the motorized usage group is very vocal, and ... something that is perceived as taking away an opportunity that already exists will meet some stiff resistance in Montana."
Lukas' organization first brought Quiet Waters to the FWP commission a year ago with the stated goal of proactively addressing breakthroughs in watercraft technology that could bring conflict to even the smallest tributaries. Public comment collected earlier this year was overwhelming against BHA's proposal1019 comments in opposition versus 423 comments in support. Critics reiterated arguments during the commission's final meeting on the issue, on May 26, that the initiative would negatively impact local businesses and restrict access for a specific subset of recreational users—namely, motorized watercraft users.
After failing to pass a motion to extend public comment another six months, the commission voted down the initiative unanimously.
Lukas acknowledges that Quiet Waters' procedural death was due in part to specific concentrations of opposition. Motorized users in the Flathead valley were particularly hostile to restrictions on the type of engines or craft allowed on certain sections of area rivers. Groups like the Flathead Walleye Association and Montana Walleyes Unlimited took a firm stand against BHA's pitch. Localized concerns were amplified by a general resistance to regulatory change, according to Larry Timchak, president of the Flathead Valley chapter of Montana Trout Unlimited (which consulted with BHA on a portion of Quiet Waters).
"There's sort of an anti-regulation fervor running high at this point, and there was a lot more passion against any regulations than there was passion or support for," Timchak says. "Sometimes those who speak the loudest win the battle."
The war against the Quiet Waters Initiative did, in Lukas' view, result in some "collateral damage." While regulatory changes on waterways like the Flathead and Missouri rivers prompted significant backlash, other areas addressed by the proposal drew little to no opposition. Lukas puts the Bitterroot River's tributaries—currently unregulated—at the top of that list. If a more localized conversation about management of those streams were to "spring up organically," Lukas says, BHA would be happy to participate. For now, though, the organization has conceded the fight. Quiet Waters is done.
"This is democracy in action, that's the way I see it," Lukas says. "The public spoke up, both for and against, and unfortunately in that area it was outweighed by a very vocal community."