U.S. senators welcome plan to protect North Fork of Flathead during hearing


by Rob Chaney

A proposal to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River from mining got a friendly reception at a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday.

"You have convinced me Glacier (National Park) and the North Fork are true jewels of the West," Senate Energy and Natural Resources acting chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "We're going to get your bill out of this committee and onto the president's desk."

The North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2011 dovetails with an agreement between Montana and the province of British Columbia to suspend all energy and metals mining in the cross-border river drainage. It would officially withdraw federal lease opportunities for coal and petroleum exploration along the river on the American side. About 80 percent of those leases, totaling more than 200,000 acres, have already been voluntarily surrendered.

"The measure enjoys such tremendous local support precisely because it protects the qualities we value most – our national parks, clean waters and rural heritage," said Michael Jamison, National Parks Conservation Association Crown of the Continent program manager, in an email to the Missoulian.

Baucus said another agreement between U.S. and Canadian conservation groups has raised the money to buy out existing Canadian mining interests without cost to American taxpayers. Some gold mining companies had discovered proven reserves there, and another river drainage to the west already has extensive coal mining operations.

"But no company in its right mind would want to develop on the North Fork of the Flathead," Baucus said. "There would be such an outrage."

Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester introduced S.233 last year as a companion effort to the British Columbia Parliament's suspension of Flathead mining development. But they were not able to get it out of the Senate before the end of the session. It must now pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president.