What’s the one major drainage basin in Montana that remains free from any sign of invasive zebra and quagga mussels? What’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi? Where’s the one place in Montana where Republicans and Democrats have worked together to preserve the environment for nearly 40 years? And finally, what’s the long-standing organization that has led the way to protect these Montana treasures?

The answers to the questions above are, in order: The Columbia River Basin, Flathead Lake, the Flathead drainage basin, and the Flathead Basin Commission. So why would Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and John Tubbs, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, want to defund the work of the Flathead Basin Commission?

Yet, that’s just what they did in the recently concluded special legislative session — and they’ve kicked up a hornet’s nest of anger while showing their disregard for protecting one of the state’s most outstanding natural treasures.

The Flathead Basin Commission was established as an independent commission by law in 1983. It is attached to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for administrative purposes only. It’s funding is about $150,000 a year — which pays for one full-time position, which generates about a half million dollars a year through grants, and the travel expenses for the other 23 members.

The commission has an outstanding track record of achievement and is not just another “advisory committee.” It’s an independent body not only capable of independent action, but with a long history of doing so.

When Canadians wanted to mine coal that would have severely diminished the water quality of the North Fork of the Flathead, it was the commission that worked with the International Joint Commission to stop the mines and avoid the cross-boundary pollution. As Montana’s former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said in a recent interview: “We couldn’t have done it without the Flathead Basin Commission.”

Only two years after it was established, the commission weighed in to support a phosphate detergent ban authorized by the 1985 Legislature in a bill sponsored by Whitefish legislator Ben Cohen. They fought Proctor and Gamble, who sent hordes of lobbyists to the Capitol to kill the bill and, failing there, to the Flathead County Commission to kill the implementation.

Fighting mega-corporate giants like Proctor and Gable is no easy task, but while the detergent company blathered on about “ring around the collar” the Democrats, Republicans and citizens of the Flathead were much more worried about “ring around the lake” — and against all odds they won. That lasting legacy helps keep Flathead Lake clean to this day and will do so into the future.

There’s speculation that Bullock gutted the commission’s budget because its members were highly critical of the state’s slow response after invasive mussels were detected in Tiber Reservoir, which is just over the divide from Flathead Lake. That the Commission worked with the Blackfeet Nation to set up their own inspection stations — and immediately found and stopped numerous contaminated boats — gives credence to their claims. But it made the Bullock administration look bad, hence the fiscal blowback because Governor Bullock doesn’t like being criticized.

But really, this is as dumb a move as anyone could ever make if preserving the Flathead Basin’s pristine water quality is important – which it is. The governor has the ability to move funds around on an emergency basis and even has an Environmental Contingency Fund he can tap. It’s time to stop Bullock’s petty political vendetta and fund the important work of the Flathead Basin Commission.

George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. He can be reached by email at oped@missoulian.com.

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