Baucus, Tester will introduce legislation banning mining, energy development in North Fork

The Missoulian

by Michael Jamison

KALISPELL – Two days after British Columbia placed the area north of Glacier National Park off limits to mining, Montana's leadership announced it would do the same on federal lands here.

"We need to show the Canadians we're working in good faith on our side of the border, as well," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Baucus intends to join Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in introducing legislation "to ensure Montanans will be able to hunt, fish and hike in the North Fork of the Flathead for generations." The law would prevent all mining, oil and gas development and coalbed gas extraction on the area's federal lands.

The North Fork Flathead drainage forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park, with waters running south from Canada into Flathead Lake. For decades, Canadian mining interests have sought to exploit mineral resources north of the park.

On Tuesday, however, British Columbia's government took the controversial mining plans off the table, passing legislation that bans industrialization of the Canadian Flathead. Baucus' bill would do the same south of the border.

"Canadians and Americans – especially Montanans – are forever linked by the beautiful Flathead Valley," Baucus said, adding that "we must step up and protect this gem – and our outdoor heritage – for future generations, no matter which side of the border we live on."

Tester concurred, stressing that "keeping pollution out of the Upper Flathead isn't just important to Montana, it's important to the entire world. Canada stepped up to be a good neighbor, and now we'll do our part to safeguard this area so our kids and grandkids can fish, hunt, hike and camp in it like we do."

Baucus said a handful of existing – but dormant – mineral leases in Montana could be "swapped out or bought out," much in the same way Montana's Rocky Mountain Front energy leases were retired. In the long run, he said, the companies will actually make more money by negotiating their way out of the politically and environmentally sensitive landscape.

"They know that the Flathead is so special that any potential development is going to run into a headwind of opposition," Baucus said. "I think they'll agree it's a better use of their economic resources to develop projects elsewhere."

The North Fork area, Baucus said, is critical to the region's economic success, noting that tourists spend more than $150 million every year in the Flathead Valley.

According to Will Hammerquist, of the National Parks Conservation Association, more than 90 percent of the Montana land base in the North Fork is federal land, and will be covered by the proposed mining ban.

"Every Montanan who cares about passing on our great outdoor heritage should applaud Sen. Baucus' and Tester's legislation," Hammerquist said, adding that the proposal represents a high point in Baucus' three-decade effort to protect Glacier Park.

Baucus first became embroiled in the transboundary development dispute in 1974, and has since championed protections for both sides of the border.

"This has been a real crusade of mine," the senator said, "from the very beginning."