North Fork Protection Bill Blocked by Three Senators

Flathead Beacon

by Tristan Scott

A popular bill to protect the North Fork Flathead River fell shy of unanimous Senate approval Thursday when three senators objected.

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, D-Mont., urged the Senate to unanimously approve the bill, calling for a voice vote on an act that would furnish permanent protections on 430,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service parcels, placing the land off limits to hard-rock mining, mountaintop-removal coal mining, and oil and gas development.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., objected to the bill on behalf of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., neither of who were present in the chamber.

Both Tester and Walsh expressed frustration over the political maneuvering of the conservative senators, who remain entrenched in their opposition to the bill, called the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.

“Once again politics is trumping good policy. The North Fork bill is a Montana-made bill. It has wide bipartisan support. Today, two people, two senators, who I would challenge to find the North Fork on a map, decide to hold this bill up,” Tester said from the Senate floor.

The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a version of the measure at the behest of Rep. Steve Daines, R- Mont., but the conservative holdouts in the Senate 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.

In introducing the bill and urging its passage, Walsh, flanked by photos of the pristine watershed, noted that the legislation has garnered broad support from conservationists and energy companies alike.

“Montanans of all stripes have endorsed this action, including companies like Exxon and Conoco Phillips,” Walsh said. “Everyone recognizes the importance in keeping the North Fork pristine. I am so disappointed in my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Their actions today show why Washington is broken.”

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.

“Canada has held up its end of the agreement. Today, Congress has the opportunity to do the same,” Walsh said.