WHITEFISH - A plan to forever protect Canadian wildlands north of Glacier National Park - and to pay for those protections - is slowly taking shape, cobbled together by an international coalition that includes local, state and federal partners.
The group has sketched a strategy for preserving the Canadian Flathead, which for decades has been threatened by coal mine proposals. Locals on both sides of the border have argued against industrialization of the wilderness, and Montana's downstream interests have worried pollution would flow south.
The Canadian Flathead crosses the international border at Glacier's northwest corner, and forms the park's western boundary before pouring into Flathead Lake.
Earlier this year, Gov. Brian Schweitzer hammered out a deal with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, protecting the Flathead from mines and development.
The leaders then announced they needed as much as $17 million to buy out investments already made by mining companies exploring the area.
Federal officials - including Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who has worked for protections since the late 1970s - said finding the money might be possible, but would likely require assurances that Canada's protections were permanent.
On Monday, the Obama administration announced that the president had met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as part of the G-20 summit, and together the leaders acknowledged the work done by Schweitzer and Campbell. The president and premier also discussed how federal agencies on both sides of the border might help to support the current agreement and ensure permanent protections.
Baucus - who along with Montana Sen. Jon Tester had recommended those high-level discussions - immediately sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, urging him to take the lead in four-party talks between Montana, British Columbia, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
Senate staffers said one possible outcome could be an international treaty of protection, perhaps drafted as an amendment under existing transboundary treaties.
Schweitzer, who has credited the historic state-province agreement to his personal relationship with Premier Campbell, said he believes the existing plan to be binding, but "if the federal government would like to be helpful, we welcome it."
That help, welcome of not, might prove politically necessary. Schweitzer needs up to $17 million in federal money to make his deal stick, and the senators want assurances of permanence before releasing that money.
If the four-party talks can result in that assurance, then Schweitzer thinks he may have found the funding source. It's called the Columbia River Restoration Act of 2010, and if passed would provide $40 million per year for six years, all aimed at protecting Columbia River Basin watersheds.
A House version of the bill is gaining steam, Schweitzer said, but a Senate version still lacks the needed co-sponsors.
"Maybe both of our senators and our congressman ought to co-sponsor" the bill, Schweitzer said.
While Schweitzer said he would welcome the fed's financial assistance, as well as its efforts to overlay the existing agreement, he stressed that "we really don't want to unwind the efforts" already codified by the governor and the premier.
Both senators have applauded Schweitzer's efforts, and have said they have no intention of undermining the agreement.
"What we're seeing today," said Will Hammerquist, of the National Parks Conservation Association, "is the combined success of both the state and federal partners, as well as their Canadian counterparts. Everyone in Montana and British Columbia had a role in this."
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at (406) 862-0324 or at email@example.com.