In protecting the Flathead, Montana leaders brought home the gold

The Helena Independent Record

by Scott Bosse

While the Vancouver Olympics will long be remembered for the inspired performances from athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller and Butte native Bryon Wilson, it was an event that happened the week prior to the opening ceremony that will leave the most lasting impact for Montanans.

More than three decades after coal strip-mining was first proposed in the North Fork of the Flathead River drainage, and less than a year after American Rivers named the Flathead one of the nation’s most endangered rivers, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell signed an historic agreement to forever protect the watershed from all forms of mining and oil and gas drilling. That the agreement was signed in Vancouver during the Olympics was fitting, for the Flathead truly is a watershed of global significance.

Governor Schweitzer downplayed his role in forging the agreement, saying, “There are people who’ve spent their lifetime working on this goal. I’ve run one lap.” But the fact is, he built a strong relationship with our neighbors to the north, and deserves credit for convincing British Columbia to reverse its longstanding land use plan for the Flathead that gave mining and oil and gas drilling primacy over all other uses.

Thank you, Governor Schweitzer.

As the governor indicated, there are others who have worked on this issue longer than he has, and no one deserves more praise than Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who began his crusade to protect the Flathead as a freshman congressman in 1974. Now that an agreement has been signed between British Columbia and Montana, Baucus and fellow Sen. Jon Tester have committed to introduce federal legislation to permanently withdraw the lands surrounding Glacier National Park from all new mining and oil and gas drilling.

Thank you, Sens. Baucus and Tester, for listening to the thousands of Montanans who worked so hard to protect this special place for so long.

Like so many Montanans, the Flathead holds a special place in my heart. Back in the early 1990s when I was a graduate student at the University of Montana, I spent a winter doing wildlife research up the North Fork. I was instantly captivated by its opalescent waters, quiet beauty, and unmatched diversity of wildlife. I will never forget the day I lay spellbound in the snow listening to 13 wolves howl in Big Prairie, the distant Livingston Range alit in alpenglow. Or the time I came across a giant grizzly napping on the duff-covered carcass of a bull elk along Akokala Creek. Or the countless times I watched herds of elk swim across the river and bald eagles soar amongst the treetops.

Last summer, nearly two decades later, I traveled up to the Canadian side of the Flathead with some friends to see for myself the places that were threatened with mining and oil and gas drilling. We drove up a rutted, corkscrew forest road to the headwaters of Foisey Creek where Cline Mining Corp. wanted to remove a mountaintop to get at the coal. We camped on a gravel bar along the Flathead River in the exact spot where coal bed methane drilling was being proposed. And we made our way up to Trachyte Ridge, where Max Resources was hoping to punch in a gold mine on a pristine mountainside. From that spot less than 10 miles north of the border, we could see deep into Glacier National Park.

It would have been a tragedy if British Columbia had allowed its side of the Flathead to become industrialized, for whatever happens at the headwaters of a river eventually affects the entire river system and downstream communities. Now that it has stepped back from the brink, British Columbia and Montana have a golden opportunity to finally give the Flathead watershed the comprehensive protections it needs to remain intact for future generations.

Scott Bosse is the Northern Rockies Director for American Rivers in Bozeman.