Mining bill starts N. Fork preservation

The Hungry Horse News

by Chris Peterson

In a two-page bill with simple language, Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus last week introduced legislation that would withdraw federally-owned North Fork lands from mining and geothermal leasing.

The bill is part of an ongoing process to stop energy development and exploration in North Fork drainage on both sides of the border.

The bill puts a moratorium on future leases on federal lands in the North Fork of the Flathead drainage, which borders Glacier National Park. It does not, however, retire existing leases — of which there are hundreds. That will come in separate legislation, an aide to Baucus said.

Those leases have been held in legal limbo for decades, as the Forest Service never completed an environmental impact statement on the potential impacts of mining in the region. As such, the leases have never been developed and exploration companies have never really shown an interest in pursuing them, either.

Still, the new bill was viewed as a first step.

"This legislation is such good news — I've been working to protect the Flathead for more than 30 years and this is a sign we are closer than ever to the finish line," Baucus said. "This is about protecting the tourism economy and the outdoor heritage of one of the most beautiful places on earth. More than 90 percent of this land is federal land — so it's got to pass Congress to become a reality. We are going to get this done for our children and our children's children."

"A lot of folks — in Montana and across the continent — know the Flathead Valley for its clean water, mountains and wildlife," said Tester. "Canada stepped up to be a good neighbor. Now we're doing do our part to safeguard this area so our kids and grandkids can fish, hunt, hike and camp in it like we do."

British Columbia and the state signed a memorandum of understanding last month where both the province and the state have agreed to stop mining and energy exploration in the Flathead. The move came after more than 30 years of arguing about the future of the watershed.

The bill also drew praise from the local business community.

"As small business owners, we fully support this effort to keep the North Fork of the Flathead River special. Montana Raft Company employs over seventy people during peak season, and those jobs depend on clean water," said Cris Coughlin, Glacier Guides and Montana Raft Company co-owner.

In a letter to Baucus, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner wrote that the legislation is good for business:

"Glacier National Park and the North Fork River Valley play a very important part in our economic vitality. Flathead Lake also serves as a critical economic engine for the region. The Chamber wishes to ensure that Glacier Park, the North Fork River, and Flathead Lake remain as economically productive as they are today. We think that oil and gas development in the Whitefish Range would be inconsistent with our interest to see the entire watershed protected from upstream (Canadian) pollution. 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?"