Montana senators reintroduce bill to protect North Fork Flathead River


by Tristan Scott

WHITEFISH – Montana U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester on Thursday reintroduced a bill that would bar mining and new oil and gas development on the North Fork of the Flathead River.

In announcing the legislation, the Democratic senators said the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which has twice stalled in previous legislative sessions as time ran out, would complete U.S. obligations to a transboundary agreement that protects the Canadian and Montana sides of the Flathead River drainage from energy and mineral development.

The legislation would furnish permanent protections on the U.S. side of the North Fork watershed and preclude new oil and gas development and mining. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act would not impede timber production, hunting or fishing, the senators said, and has garnered broad support from Montana businesses and conservation groups alike.

“Wild pristine places like the North Fork drive our economy, attract tourists and make Montana a great place to live, work and raise a family,” according to a statement from Baucus. “There’s no place on earth quite like the North Fork and it’s our duty to make sure our kids and grandkids can enjoy it.”


If passed, the bill would build on the success the senators have had in persuading companies to retire oil and gas development leases elsewhere in the area, Tester said. Companies such as ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Exxon subsidiary XTO Energy have voluntarily relinquished more than 200,000 acres, or about 80 percent of the total leased acreage.

“Outdoor recreation supports businesses and creates jobs, but Montanans understand that protecting these areas is about more than just dollars and cents,” Tester stated in a release from his office. “It’s about setting aside places where we can pass on our Montana values to our kids and our grandkids, and I’ll keep fighting to protect areas like the North Fork that make Montana a special place to live and work.”

Although similar bills have garnered unanimous support in the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the past two years, the full Senate failed to take action on it, as was the case with most other lands bills.

Michael Jamison, Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, hailed the bill’s reintroduction this session as appropriate and timely, coming as it does exactly three years after former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia agreed to protect lands north of Glacier National Park from industrialization.

“I can’t think of a better way to honor that anniversary than the introduction of this legislation,” Jamison said. “We Montanans shook hands on a good faith deal to protect the shared transboundary region, and this bill shows we’re honest about upholding our end of the bargain.”

Jamison noted that, in the past year, support for the legislation has been nearly universal, coming from cities, counties, Chambers of Commerce, leaders of business and industry.

“Even major energy companies such as Chevron and ConocoPhillips have thrown their weight behind the bill,” he said. “This bill – which does not cost taxpayers a dime, and preserves all private property rights – protects both our outdoor heritage and our economic future for generations to come. We join both our Montanan and Canadian neighbors in encouraging its swift passage.”

Baucus has long been a strong proponent of permanent protections for the North Fork of the Flathead River, beginning with his successful 1975 proposal to designate the Flathead as a Wild and Scenic River. In introducing the legislation Thursday, the senators vowed to continue their efforts that led to the return of more than 200,000 acres held by energy companies in the transboundary region while fighting for passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.