Glacier mining ban makes it out of Senate panel


by Michael Jamison

KALISPELL — A measure that would ban mining on federal land along Glacier National Park’s western edge has passed a major Senate hurdle, and has been expanded to provide water quality protections for nearby communities.

“This is tremendous news,” said U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. “Working together, we can protect this magnificent area so our children and grandchildren can enjoy it like we do now.”

Baucus has played a central role for about 30 years in the effort to safeguard Glacier Park’s northwestern watershed.

In the 1980s, he led local and statewide opposition to Canadian coal mining plans, just north of the park border.

Those projects — which were resurrected in recent years — would have removed entire mountaintops from the headwaters of the Canadian Flathead River, which spills south to form Glacier’s western boundary before pouring into Flathead Lake.

Residents from both sides of the international line have long called for protections, saying pollution from the proposed projects could harm local fisheries and economies alike.

Last February, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell announced an agreement that prohibited future mining on the Canadian lands.

Baucus followed quickly with a similar measure on the Montana side, proposing to ban future oil and gas mining leases on federal lands adjacent to the park’s western border.

On Wednesday, that North Fork Protection Act passed through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and now is headed to the Senate floor.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester,

D-Mont., called the passage “a great step forward

as we work together to permanently protect the Flathead Valley and its clean water, mountains and wildlife.”

Protected in Montana

Montana already has protected state lands in the watershed, issuing a moratorium of its own on mine leases in the North Fork Flathead River drainage. In addition, Baucus has negotiated the voluntary retirement of many federal land leases already on the ground there, eliminating potential mine activity on 250,000 acres.

The federal delegation also is involved in international talks that would replicate the agreement already reached between the state and province.

“It’s been a busy summer, during Glacier’s centennial year, and this is very good news,” said Will Hammerquist, of the National Park Conservation Association.

According to Hammerquist, the bill banning future federal mine leases has been expanded from its original to include the watershed upstream of Whitefish Lake, the nearby Haskill Basin drainage, and the wild and scenic Middle Fork Flathead corridor.

The area above the lake and the Haskill drainage are part of the Whitefish

city water supply; the Middle Fork waters are important to recreation, running along Glacier’s southern edge between the park

and the Great Bear Wilderness.

That protection extends to the Continental Divide, where it abuts a portion of the Rocky Mountain Front where mineral leasing already is prohibited — essentially creating a no-mine zone on public lands around much of Glacier’s periphery.

A broad coalition

Whitefish Mayor Mike Jenson said his community is “thrilled” with the bill, adding that it “provides some very important protections for the city of Whitefish’s watershed.”

Cris Coughlin, whose Glacier Wilderness Guides operates on both the North and Middle forks, agreed that “lasting protection of the North Fork is a critical part of Montana’s recreation economy.”

Hammerquist noted that a broad coalition of local residents and business leaders came together in asking that Baucus’ proposed North Fork protections be broadened.

“They offered improvements, and the senators listened,” he said. “That’s exactly the way the process is supposed to work; it couldn’t have happened in a better way.”

The last piece of the puzzle, Hammerquist said, will be “completing the federal agreement that really cements into place all these international protections. They’re just stitching it all together in a way that really does protect the Glacier-Waterton Peace Park into perpetuity.”

The measures also protect local trade, according to Kalispell Chamber of Commerce chair Joe Unterreiner.

“We are pleased to see this bill, which benefits both our environment and our economy in northwest Montana,” he said.

In a previous letter to Baucus, Unterreiner called Flathead Lake “a critical economic engine,” and

said his business group believes “oil and gas development in the Whitefish Range would be inconsistent with our interest to see the entire watershed protected from upstream pollutions.”

“How can we ask the Canadians to forego development of their coal and gas resources within the North Fork watershed if we are not willing to make the same decision?” Unterreiner asked in that letter.

Tourism studies indicate that more than 2 million visitors spend more than $150 million annually in the Flathead.

In addition to the environmental and business interests, hunters and anglers have joined to defend the protections, creating a coalition of support that extends well beyond traditional concerns.

“Now the next step is to get this bill passed by the whole Senate and signed into law, so that we can forever ensure that our kids and grandkids have the same opportunities to hunt, fish, hike and camp in the Flathead that we enjoy today,” Tester said.