HUNGRY HORSE – No stone of preservation was left unturned by advocates of landscape resource protection in the Crown of the Continent Saturday during a meeting with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh at the Hungry Horse Ranger Station.
Tribal members, environmental groups, Glacier National Park brass, civic leaders and federal officials attended the gathering, which was organized to update stakeholders on the progress of the widely supported North Fork Watershed Protection Act, and for attendees to voice concerns about the need for additional federal measures to protect the landscape in the transboundary Flathead Valley.
The nature of those concerns ran the gamut, with conservation advocates denouncing the prospect of oil and gas or mining leases in the North Fork Flathead River, and Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow sounding alarms at the quantity of oil being freighted along the Middle Fork of the Flathead and the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. Others still spoke about the threat of coal mining and selenium pollution on the Elk River in British Columbia, an upstream tributary of the Kootenai River, and the importance of passing the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. That bill would designate 208,000 acres as a conservation management area that allows motorized access, biking and other current uses, add another 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and support noxious weed prevention programs for agricultural and public lands across the Front.
Democrats Tester and Walsh have overwhelmingly supported the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a version of which was first introduced by former Sen. Max Baucus, whose retirement to become ambassador to China cast doubt on the bill’s future.
However, Jewell emphasized the importance of a lands protection bill like the North Fork measure and said she may seek administrative relief to temporarily implement the bill as it languishes in Congress, while Tester and Walsh pledged to continue to work toward permanent passage of the bill.
“As human beings we haven’t always appreciated these great landscapes. I know there have been decisions made by some of my predecessors to put leases in areas right on the edge of a national park, right on the edge of a wilderness area and right in areas that are too special to be developed,” Jewell said. “You have all worked very hard to make people understand why these places are too special to be developed. This is a very important place to protect into perpetuity.”
If passed, the public lands bill would furnish permanent protections on 430,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service parcels along the north and middle forks of the Flathead River, placing them off limits to hard-rock mining, mountaintop-removal coal mining, and oil and gas development.
Although the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a version of the measure at the behest of Rep. Steve Daines, R- Mont., three conservative holdouts in the Senate – Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn.; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. – have stymied passage of the bill by refusing to vote for it.
Walsh invited those senators to visit Northwest Montana and see the cherished landscape for themselves, but the Tea Party conservatives have stipulated that the only way they’ll support additional federal land protection is if an equal amount of land is removed from federal protection.
“There is nothing more frustrating from a congressional level, and this is why we are in the single-digit approval level by the way, than when you have a bill sitting there with universal support and somebody holds it up for personal gain,” Tester said. “This isn’t being held up because it is bad policy. This is being held up so they can get a news story. The fact is, this is crazy.”
Walsh, whom Gov. Steve Bullock appointed to fill Baucus’ senate seat one month ago and is also running against Daines in the Senate race, said he intends to fulfill the lands legacy that his predecessor laid the groundwork for decades ago.
“It would be a failure on my behalf if we weren’t able to get this area protected. To get this across the finish line,” Walsh said. “We are going to push it as hard as we can to get this through the senate. But I got to tell you there is some pushback and it’s not going to be easy. We are going to have to work to get it through some of these senators that don’t think it’s important.”
Other proponents of the legislation said it reciprocates a 2010 transboundary agreement between Canada and the U.S. to ban new energy development on the Canadian Flathead, and would fulfill U.S. obligations to protect both sides of the Flathead River drainage from energy and mineral development.
National Parks Conservation Association program manager Michael Jamison noted the bill has support from energy companies such as Conoco-Phillips. Passage of the bill would complete the United States’ share of the agreement to protect the area, he said.
Jamison also noted the juxtaposition of strong local collaboration and a hamstrung Congress. Jamison helped organize the Whitefish Range Partnership, a diverse coalition of 36 user groups with a stake in the management of public lands on the Flathead National Forest, which is revising its forest service plan for the first time since 1986. The upshot of the partnership’s yearlong series of meetings was the draft of a blueprint for the future of the Flathead, which they presented to the federal agency to help inform planning process.
The draft plan included language to protect the North Fork that are identical to the federal plan before Congress, evidence of the resounding support of such a measure.
“We can do all this work on our own locally and it doesn’t matter if you all don’t have a process that we can plug into,” Jamison said. “If there’s anything that you can do higher up in terms of administrative relief in the interim that might help set the stage to help our local work see the light of day I would just encourage you to pursue that to any degree possible.”
Jewell, who visited Hungry Horse and Glacier Park on a three-day tour of Montana, said the prospect of an administrative withdrawal – a temporary decree that enacts the fruits of legislation without congressional action – is a strong possibility, but she must work with Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“There is an administrative ability to exercise, when there is legislation in play, for us to administratively withdraw lands from future mining leases while that legislation is pending,” Jewell said. “We are going to work on it to get it done. It crosses two departments. It is now on my radar and I will make sure it is on Tom Vilsack’s radar.”
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld noted the momentum of a local collaborative between the city of Whitefish, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. and the Trust for Public Lands to protect more than 3,000 acres in Haskill Basin near Whitefish. The property, owned by Stoltze and located beside Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain, is highly vulnerable to the pressures of development, proponents of the easement say, and is the source of 75 percent of the municipal water supply in Whitefish.
The proposed protection of land and water in Whitefish’s Haskill Basin has been ranked as the top priority for the U.S. Forest Service’s working forest conservation project.
“I wanted to emphasize the importance of this bill in relation to some of the local efforts that we are focused on, notably between TPL and Stoltze,” Muhlfeld said. “We received a grant from the Forest Legacy Program, so assuming that Congress approves the budget we are looking at a $7 million contribution toward permanently lifting the development rights off the municipal water supply.”
Chas Cartwright, a retired Glacier Park superintendent, said the North Fork protection measure is too critical to allow it to linger.
“I think there is a sense of urgency of getting the North Fork bill passed. If you think about what (British Columbia) did in giving up those rights, that is big. Something of a comparable level with what B.C. did would put us in a much more powerful position. We need to ramp it up significantly,” Cartwright said. “The window of opportunity will not be open forever.”
Bonnie Ellis, a University of Montana research professor and a researcher at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, said the connected aquifers of the Flathead River would make cleanup of mining contaminants or an oil spill “virtually impossible.”
“I just want to make sure you understand the difficulty we would be facing in mitigating any kind of pollution in these rivers,” she said. “These gravel river beds are connected hydrologically and biologically and chemically to alluvial aquifers. Trying to get something out would be virtually impossible.”
Jewell and both senators commended attendees on their continued efforts to pass land conservation measures in Montana, and said they’d work to pass the measures despite dysfunction in Congress.