STEVENSVILLE — Jim Crews wants to take his 13-foot hovercraft for a ride on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers, but he’s got some bureaucratic whitewater to navigate before that can occur.
The former mayor of this small town south of Missoula recently filed a petition with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks seeking rule changes that will allow him and others to use their crafts to hover on a cushion of air over water, ice and land, up and down the two rivers, propelled by a huge fan in the back.
His initial request seems simple. Motorized boats already are allowed on the Bitterroot and the section of the Clark Fork River that runs through Missoula, but only from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31. During that time, they’re also required to use motors that are 20 horsepower or less. The main reason for that rule, adopted in 2011, centers around the motors’ noise.
Crews wants that restriction to be lifted because most hovercraft motors range from 29 to 100 horsepower, which is necessary to stay afloat. That power typically goes to twin engines, one of which provides lift on a cushion of air as the other powers the large fan on the back of the hovercraft.
While Crews’ petition just asks to be exempt from the 20 horsepower standard, his overall goal is broader: He wants anyone with hovercrafts to be able to take them on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers throughout the year, even if it’s only one day a week. Already he takes these toys on Seeley and Swan lakes and Painted Rocks Reservoir, as well as other water bodies without restrictions on motorized uses.
“It doesn’t go any faster than a motor boat, and they’re safer on the river because you’re above rocks, rapids and weeds,” Crews said, adding that unlike traditional motors, hovercrafts don’t have any blades in the water that could harm fish, and don’t create wakes.
“We want to float from Petty Creek near Alberton to Harper’s Bridge or to Mill Creek. It would be great if we could go all the way to Darby, too,” Crews said over the purr of the hovercraft engine. “There’s only about” — he paused to count on his fingers — “about seven hovercraft in the state, so it’s not like we’re opening the floodgates.”
Those horsepower and date restrictions were adopted in 2011 after a lengthy river recreation rule-making process that resulted in more than 600 comments. Staff at FWP are recommending that the Fish and Wildlife Commission reject Crews’ petition at its Dec. 5 meeting, and not put the request out for public comment.
Pat Saffel, the Region 2 FWP fisheries manager, said the restrictions were implemented after nearly 75% of the comments from the 2011 process mentioned concerns about noise and the proximity of fast-moving boats near other river users.
He doesn’t remember hovercrafts being mentioned at that point; instead, jet skis and jet boats were of concern because they could access shallow water at high speeds.
“Twenty horsepower was centered around the largest portable conventional motors that are often used by duck hunters in the fall,” Saffel recalled. “One of the big concerns was speed and noise. Jet skis stay in one spot and do circles, and people cited jet boats going into shallow water going fast. That becomes a safety issue, especially when going upstream includes poor visibility” around the rivers’ twists and turns.
John DeArment, the science director for the Clark Fork Coalition, also voiced concerns over Crews’ petition to lift the horsepower restrictions and his stated goal of allowing hovercrafts on the water during the warmer months. In particular, DeArment doesn’t like how the petition carves out exemptions specifically for hovercrafts.
“This could lead to power boats in ecologically sensitive streams and places where we’re seeing higher and higher uses” because they don’t need much water, DeArment said. “Even back in 2011 there were conflicts among users.”
If hovercrafts were allowed year-round, DeArment and Saffel worried that they could increase those conflicts. Last summer, DeArment said a study showed that more than 150 people per hour were floating under the Madison Street Bridge during the peak summer season. They’re concerned about the potential for collisions among those floating downstream and the hovercrafts heading upstream.
“We have places where motorized boats are completely banned and places where there’s few if any regulations, so he still has several areas where he can use his hovercraft,” DeArment said. “Other users on the river and homeowners nearby, along with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, came up with a compromise that would minimize conflicts and it’s a pretty reasonable policy from a publicly vetted process. They should stick with it.”
Crews, however, defends his request.
He’s not asking for anything special, “just a little river time where we can recreate with our families,” Crews said on a crisp autumn morning, after buffing out a spot on his blue Garmin Coastal Pro II hovercraft parked on a trailer in his driveway. “We want to protect recreational users as much as fishing rights. It shouldn’t be about taking away opportunities but protecting rights. We need a balance for the interests of all river users, and this law ignores hovercrafts as recreational users.”
He lowered the trailer’s tailgate, started the hovercraft motor, and gently pushed it off the ramp. The hovercraft can hold four people or 880 pounds.
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Crews shut down the motor, pulled a sound level meter out of his coat pocket and turned it on. He says he’s sensitive to people’s concerns about noise.
“People have a misconception of hovercrafts. Racing ones are loud, but this one is no louder than a lawnmower,” he says, holding up the meter to show that a regular conversation registers about 60 decibels. As his friend Craig Thomas, who built the trailer and also owns a hovercraft, drove up in a diesel truck, Crews directed the meter toward the truck where it registered about 64 decibels, but jumped to 90 when Thomas revved the motor.
According to noise comparisons by Purdue University, power mowers hit 96 decibels, which is the same as a Boeing 737 aircraft out 1 nautical mile before landing.
The hovercraft idles at 87 decibels when the meter is held about a foot from the exhaust, which is about the same noise level as a food blender and is in compliance with Montana codes about noise limitations for boats.
“It’s within the state specifications,” Thomas said. “I have a right to use these rivers just like everyone else. Fishermen, float boats, paddleboards, swimmers, tubers — there’s room for everyone.”
Crews added that no one is fishing or swimming in the river from October through January, when motorized vehicles are allowed on both rivers, so the larger horsepower for hovercrafts shouldn’t be an issue.
Later, Crews revved the hovercraft’s front engine so the craft came off the ground, then gently opened the throttle so the fan could push it forward. The decibels hovered between 100 and 105, which is similar to the noise made by a jet takeoff, a farm tractor, jackhammer or garbage truck. Thomas noted that the sound could be echoing off the house, making it more intense.
The Perdue study states that 110 decibels is the average human pain threshold, and live rock music is between 108 and 114 decibels.
Crews said it would be a rare occurrence to rev the motor that loud on the two rivers, and unlike jet skis that play mainly in one area, the hovercraft would be there and gone. With all the twists and turns of the rivers, especially the smaller Bitterroot, hovercraft operators would be forced to maneuver at low speeds.
“I want to be able to take my hovercraft on the river. Period. If they want to restrict the season that’s fine, so we don’t interfere with fishermen or float boats,” Crews said. “But just one day a week, families should be able to recreate on the river using hovercrafts.”
Thomas added that on the Salmon River in Idaho, large jet boats safely share the river with rafters and kayakers.
That may be so, but DeArment and Bitterroot fishing guide and Stevensville resident Eddie Olwell said that while those multiple uses are compatible in some places, that doesn’t mean they’re appropriate for the section of the Clark Fork through Missoula and the entire Bitterroot.
"The user experience is changed by the presence of fast-moving motorized crafts," DeArment said. "I'm not saying there isn't a place for that, because there certainly is. But other places are more compatible."
In fact, Olwell is adamantly opposed to summer use by hovercrafts on the Bitterroot.
“In my opinion that would be a huge problem. It’s a safety issue and would be a big problem for the fly fishing community. People who wade and float fish don’t need fricking hovercrafts going through when they’re fishing,” Olwell said, adding that Crews had his chance to voice concerns involving hovercrafts during the 2011 public process. “It goes against the motorized ban for disturbing hunters and fishers using the river.
“He’s making a false argument and I think he’s nuts to think the state will change the regulations to appease one person. A lot of people worked on those river regulations and a lot of public comment was taken that was well researched and well thought out.”
Crews countered that he and other “regular people with day jobs” may not have been able to find the time to be involved in the 2011 process, and there’s no reason it shouldn't be revisited to consider hovercrafts.
“People like me were working 10, 12 hours trying to make a living while those rules were being made,” Crews said. “They didn’t include us and they have a legal obligation to do so.”
Public comment on the petition will be taken at the Dec. 5 meeting, which begins at 8:30 a.m. in Helena. A full agenda can be found on the link to the commissioner’s meetings' agenda at fwp.mt.gov. The hovercraft discussion is slated for 15 minutes under the FWP enforcement division portion of the agenda, which is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. However, the times are approximations and could vary greatly.
Anyone wishing to comment on any agenda item also can head to the FWP Region 2 headquarters at 3201 Spurgin Road in Missoula, where the meeting will be broadcast remotely. The meeting also can be live-streamed from the fwp.mt.gov website, but people can only listen through their computer.