Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After lowering his canoe into the Clark Fork River near the California Street Bridge, Randy Moss held the bouncing boat steady so Tarn Ream could get in. The peak streamflow of 2018 had receded a bit, but the river was still running high, just the way Moss liked it.

Having canoed the river for years, Moss prefers the early summer conditions, when the higher flow still pushes the water into all the channels that braid above Kelly Island and the confluence of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers.

“It’s a treasure for Missoula because it’s so close. It’s perfect for canoes,” Moss said. “There’s very little traffic, because for some, it’s not safe, especially for novice paddlers. Rafts really don’t go through there because it’s hard for them to get around log jams.”

The two friends paddled under the Reserve Street Bridge where, about a month earlier, Missoula Search and Rescue had evacuated a homeless encampment threatened by rising water. Then, south of Garden City Compost, they rounded a bend and stared at the left bank. It was littered with garbage that had been carried by a surging river, everything from plastic bags and bottles to car batteries and pieces of furniture. On one beach, Moss found a green vinyl drug kit - complete with needles and a spoon - embedded in the sand.

“What we discovered was all the stuff from the homeless camp had washed down. It was creepy to be on the beach because there were (hypodermic) needles everywhere,” Ream said. “That beach that really struck me, probably because it was the first one we came to. Everything, including heavy stuff, was deposited high up on the bank. But we saw stuff on beaches as far down as the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork.”

Not every year brings flood waters like 2018, but spring runoff still carries a lot of trash into and down the Clark Fork River every year. A good amount of Missoula’s contribution ends up on the beaches and log jams in the stretch of river between Tower Street and Kelly Island, while the rest is carried farther downstream.

“It’s the great garbage sieve of Missoula,” said Morgan Valliant, Missoula City Ecosystems Services associate director. “Anything that gets dropped in the river in Missoula gets collected there. You can’t find a log jam or pile that’s not littered with garbage.”

The trash has several sources, from fishermen and floaters to careless Missoulians recreating and living next to the river. But the increasing homeless population is starting to add an inordinate amount of garbage, since many prefer to camp next to the river.

Across the nation, where housing is limited and prices are out of reach for many, towns and cities are experiencing the same problem with growing homeless populations. But for Missoula, the river that runs through it creates an additional environmental challenge that riverless cities don’t have to deal with.

Clark Fork River and Missoula

Flowing through the center of Missoula, the Clark Fork River is an amenity treasured by some but taken for granted by others. It provides aesthetic pleasure, recreational opportunity and habitat for wildlife. As a result, it spawned the creation of at least one organization dedicated to its preservation, the Clark Fork Coalition.

Volunteers do their best to collect trash left by homeless campers along the river. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current file)
Volunteers do their best to collect trash left by homeless campers along the river. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current file)

The Clark Fork Coalition has spent years trying to restore and maintain the river, from advocating for federal cleanup of the upper Clark Fork mine waste and Smurfit Stone mill industrial chemicals to shepherding the removal and cleanup of the Milltown Dam and reservoir in 2008. And every spring, they rally volunteers to troll the riverbanks around town picking up trash.

A lot of time, money and effort has been spent on cleaning a river that is now being polluted by a more urban source. But the issue of homeless encampments and tents near the river is a thorny one, said Karen Knudsen, Clark Fork Coalition executive director.

“Every year, we see this happening, especially in the spring, when there seems to be a real influx of unhoused populations,” Knudsen said. “In Missoula, as we grow, the public spaces decrease, they’re not welcome in some of them anymore, and there’s just no housing for them. The unhoused are forced to exist in these increasingly tenuous areas, and for sure, floodplains and riparian areas are tenuous places, especially when rivers are rising.”

The indigent influx is growing. During his 15-year stint with the city, Valliant has seen tent density increase in Missoula’s natural areas to where they’ve overflowed into more developed parks over the past five years.

“When I first started, we were doing a few camp cleanups a season in our natural areas, and it was rare in a developed park. And now, it’s pretty much a weekly occurrence, due to the volume and amount of waste that accumulates,” Valliant said. “Some camps are clean, and those aren’t priorities for us. Our priorities are when we find - and this is happening more frequently - trash everywhere, buckets of feces in the river corridor, open latrines. That kind of stuff is exactly what we don’t want in our rivers.”

With more homeless pressure, the City Parks employees have had to add camp cleanups to their list of duties but aren’t really funded for that part of the job. Valliant said they’ve gotten it done because many employees care about the natural places they maintain. But they also couldn’t do it without the Clark Fork Coalition cleanups and caring individuals who pitch in whenever they can.

But such cleanups only go so far. Meanwhile, trash scattered around tents not only litters the river and its corridor, but it also causes one other problem: it attracts wildlife, namely bears.

Trash attracts wildlife

Western Montana is grizzly countr, and by now, most people who spend time in the woods know they have to keep food out of and away from their tents to avoid attracting grizzlies. It’s a good habit for everyone to adopt, because while grizzlies have yet to wander into Missoula, plenty of black bears do, lured in by the promise of food.

It used to be that black bears would mainly sneak into town starting in mid-summer when berries growing along the river begin to pop. Or when apples ripen in the fall. Once in the city, attractants like smelly unlocked trash cans, bird feeders and pet food left outside can lead bears into trouble.

An illegal homeless camp within the riparian corridor in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Curren)
An illegal homeless camp within the riparian corridor in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

Those manmade attractants are still a big problem, but now homeless encampments have joined the mix.

Jamie Jonkel, Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear specialist, said that last summer, there were “a ton” of incidents involving bears getting into trash and food in homeless encampments strung out all along the Kim Williams Trail east of the University of Montana and down along the river to the west.

So far, few bears have entered the city this year, but that will change within a week or two as bushes along the river burgeon with chokecherries. However, Jonkel did have to euthanize one black bear that he believes was involved in two incidents involving encampments along the Kim Williams Trail last month.

He got a report that a bear crushed a tent that had food in it near the Jacob’s Island dog park. A few days later, a bear crushed another tent farther up Hellgate Canyon and food was scattered all over the area. Fortunately, no one was in either tent. It wasn’t until the bear showed too much curiosity, poking his head into a window on campus, that Jonkel decided to put him down.

Jonkel said the two tent encounters may have led the bear to its demise, but maybe not.

“What’s sad is, if you’re homeless, you have to sleep with your food and you have to sleep with your possessions or someone might steal it,” Jonkel said. “But all along the base of Mount Sentinel - I hate to say it - even though it’s in the bear-buffer zone, everyone has a bird feeder swinging, everyone’s got their garbage out. The homeless just exasperated the situation that already existed.”

Jonkel said Parks employees have been good about jumping on problem camps. But he’d like to come up with other solutions, like installing bear-proof food boxes, especially if the camping ban pushes more people to the outskirts where bears are more prevalent.

Impacts on riparian habitat

Aside from creating impromptu feeding stations for bears, camps along the river take their toll on other parts of the riparian ecosystem. Vegetation under and around tents gets beaten down, and trees and bushes are often cut to clear camping areas.

Valliant, who has a background in restoration ecology, said that kind of damage can make the city’s mandate of balancing public use with the protection and enhancement of wildlife habitat even more of a challenge.

“These riparian areas are probably the worst to have extensive camping. In some places, you’re dealing with two seasons of restoration work to counter a month of damage,” Valliant said. “There’s a reason if you go into the national forest that you aren’t allowed to camp in one place for more than two weeks, because you cause impacts. Certainly in the dry ecosystem in which we live and the short growing season, it takes a lot longer for vegetation to recover. There’s a a reason you can’t camp in riparian areas or next to wetlands.”

Knudsen said the damage can extend beyond the area of the encampment.

“One thing that is troubling to us is we know riparian corridors are integral to the biological diversity and water quality of our local ecosystem, and degradation causes problems at the local and regional levels. That degradation occurs when people make use of riparian zones for living, through either terracing or vegetation removal, that negatively affects stream temperature and structure,” Knudsen said. “(The river) becomes a magnet, because there’s a way to dispose of waste and you have some privacy because it’s a riparian area. But it has its impact.”

A no-camp buffer along the river?

So what can be done to save Missoula’s river and wildlife without demonizing the unhoused? While the river may present more of a problem for the Garden City, Missoula isn’t the only river town searching for solutions.

In Oregon, some people along the Willamette River tried last year to see if regulation could reduce the trash problem. They petitioned their state Department of Environmental Quality to create trash load limits using the Clean Water Act. The Willamette flows through Eugene, Salem, Corvallis and Portland, so those municipalities and other property owners would have to meet the standards.

But environmental quality departments have a hard time controlling what’s called “non-point source pollution” that doesn’t require a permit. So Oregon DEQ has said it has limited ability to enforce such regulation.

Earlier this year, Republican legislators introduced a bill requiring Oregon DEQ to investigate citizen complaints of water pollution and clear out camps to protect state waters. One of the bill sponsors said Oregon DEQ “would never allow this kind of pollution from a company or establishment, yet it is tolerated when camping is unlawfully happening.” It got pushback from homeless advocates and failed to pass before the Legislature adjourned on June 25.

Meanwhile other cities such as Yakima, Wash., and Kalamazoo, Mich., are trying to write plans to clean and protect their rivers, doing such things as organizing cleanup events and providing trash receptacles. But as Missoula is finding, such efforts yield limited success.

One possible solution is creating a no-camp buffer along the river, especially during spring runoff, as a safety matter. Knudsen said it could be one possibility.

“It’s not lost on people that the unhoused should not be camping along the river, not only for their safety but for the health of the river. So why not create setbacks or try to find some ways to take care of waste,” Knudsen said. “We don’t want to be insensitive to the fact that these are humans in crisis. But there’s nothing like crises imposed on other elements that make Missoula this thriving and sustainable place. Those can’t be ignored. Acknowledging that could inspire people to come up with a solution. If we’re looking at comprehensive, community-wide coordinated approaches, they should include protecting the river.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at

More From 94.9 KYSS FM