A calm spring morning on the Flathead River. 

If you’ve visited Glacier National Park, you have probably noticed the pristine water of the Three Forks of the Flathead. But there may be more river than you realize! Did you know that 100 miles of the Flathead River borders Glacier National Park? Due to its proximity to the park, the Flathead River is greatly impacted by those traveling to and from the area to explore Glacier. With increased visitation in recent years, the river has experienced a spike in recreation, requiring additional resources for the preservation of this vital watershed.

With the help of generous donors, the Glacier Conservancy is utilizing a match from the Flathead National Forest and Flathead Rivers Alliance to co-sponsor a Big Sky Watershed Corps internship to support the river system. This intern supports visitor engagement, coordinates volunteers for monitoring surveys, monitors water quality, assists with the development of educational tools and materials, and conducts river user data analyses. Sunshine Flamer, the intern selected for 2023, is a member of the Big Sky Watershed Corps and is part of the AmeriCorps program.

The Glacier Conservancy had the opportunity to speak with Sunshine to hear more about her role as an intern with the Flathead River Alliance.

Sunshine Flamer, Flathead River Alliance intern, floats while monitoring the Flathead River

Sunshine Flamer, Flathead River Alliance intern, monitoring the Flathead River.

Glacier Conservancy (GNPC): Can you speak a little about the internship?

Sunshine Flamer (SF): This internship is through Big Sky Watershed Corps, a branch of Montana Conservation Corps, where you serve an eleven-month term with a host organization in Montana. This is an amazing position that connects people like me who are just starting in the conservation field with established organizations and agencies. With increased use, land and resource managers at the local, state, and federal levels are challenged to address the negative pressures of recreation, including habitat degradation, crowding at river access sites, and stream bank erosion. Collaboration with nonprofit watershed organizations, like the Flathead Rivers Alliance, is boosting capacity for resource managers that are challenged to keep up with threats. My position helps with the communication between these agencies and boosts capacity in their organizations.

GNPC: What piqued your interest in this position?

SF: I have always been interested in watershed conservation. I loved the fieldwork and data collection aspect of it, but I have always felt that education and outreach around this work is so important. I believe there is a bit of a scientific language barrier and a lack of information between conservation work and the general public. People understand you’re helping the river, but not why. This position stood out to me because a big objective of the Flathead Rivers Alliance (FRA) is to help harness the ‘power of why’ in fostering an environment of self-teaching and pride in river stewardship among diverse river users. I was also really excited to be a part of this amazing and unique partnership between nonprofit organizations and government agencies.

Wet bird tracks on a river stone along the Flathead River

Bird Tracks on the Flathead River.
Photo: NPS

GNPC: How is this internship beneficial to your future career? What skills and experiences do you hope to get out of this work?

SF: This internship has given me a unique opportunity to explore river management and how that is accomplished between watershed nonprofits and government agencies. The skill sets I will learn while helping these groups, such as river management through the NFS River Ranger program, volunteer management, and education in classroom settings, will help me stand out and become more desirable to future employers. With this position, I hope to acquire new skills in education, outreach, and mapping. I want to also further my knowledge of Wild and Scenic River management.

GNPC: Can you explain what a typical day looks like for you?

SF: I love this position because it is so dynamic! Every day is a little bit different. During the winter season, I will typically work on a mix of long-term projects such as a story map for the Three Forks of the Flathead, grants, sampling, and data management. I am also working on advertising upcoming events for FRA through social media and outreach opportunities. During the summer, I am helping manage FRA volunteers at boat access sites, help clean up events and boost the Forest Service and Glacier National Park’s River Ranger programs.

North Fork of the Flathead River at the US-Canada Border

North Fork of the Flathead River at the US-Canada Border.

Photo: NPS

GNPC: Why do you feel this work is important? And how does this work with the Flathead River Alliance tie in Glacier National Park?

SF: With a visitation increase of 40% since 2012 and recent unprecedented residential growth in Western Montana’s counties, there is a need to address river user trends and capacity to protect the outstandingly remarkable values (ORV) of the Wild and Scenic River. For many first time recreation users, the river is an entry point into this field, so Flathead Rivers Alliance has the opportunity to integrate this idea of stewardship into their mindset. With such an increase in river use, Forest Service River Rangers can’t reach every river user. River Rangers can also be a little intimidating to talk to for first-time users. This is where Flathead Rivers Alliance can be helpful to those agencies and spread awareness. River ambassadors that are placed at river access sites are a friendly face to river users that can give out useful information and be an ear to problems that river users might have come across. River ambassadors keep track of recurring questions and issues and then communicate these to the National Park and the Forest Service. The Flathead Rivers Alliance also partners with Glacier National Park with their River Citizen Science program. Volunteers are trained to collect river user data, wildlife, and invasive species data using a Survey123 app made by GNP. This partnership gives river users a hands-on opportunity in river conservation and Glacier National Park valuable data that they can use. When partners come together, they create additional capacity in their programs to help manage and protect the Flathead Wild and Scenic River.

GNPC: What are you most looking forward to this summer with being in this position?

SF: I am really excited to educate new river users this summer about the Three Forks and why it’s so special!


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This project and many other critical projects would not be possible without your donations to the Glacier Conservancy.

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