Schweitzer says deal to protect Flathead River Basin holding together despite deadline challenges

Schweitzer says deal to protect Flathead River Basin holding together despite deadline challenges

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An agreement to protect the American and Canadian sides of the Flathead River Basin from mining and energy extraction is holding together, even though snags have developed in financing the deal.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer met with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell in Victoria on Wednesday and returned with assurances their memorandum of understanding on the Flathead's protection would survive a July deadline.

The problem is a promise to buy out the money already invested by two mining firms that have done oil, coal and gold exploration on the Canadian side of the Flathead, which runs along Glacier National Park's western border. Schweitzer said the bill could be as high as $17 million, but he did not have an exact figure. He has asked Montana's congressional delegation, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, for the money.

"They're not saying no - they're saying they're working on it," Schweitzer said on Thursday. "So I've said to them (the Canadians) I don't have an affirmation on the money for the mining companies yet."

And the money won't be in hand by the previously agreed-upon July deadline.

"I asked Premier Campbell is progress going fast enough," Schweitzer said. "He said it's not perfect, but we're going to let this go for a while."

Schweitzer sent Sen. Max Baucus a letter requesting the money on June 7. But Baucus' staff said the letter wasn't sufficient to trigger a formal federal earmark or funding appropriation.

Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester have introduced a bill to retire oil and gas leases on the Montana reach of the Flathead. Oil companies there have already voluntarily retired about 180,000 acres of energy leases.

Campbell and Schweitzer worked quietly on the Flathead agreement, which builds on almost 35 years of cross-border negotiations. The issue got started in the 1970s when Canadian mining companies proposed digging for coal northwest of Waterton Lakes National Park, across the border from Glacier. The two parks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world's first International Peace Park.

The agreement was announced at the British Columbia Legislature's Throne Speech in January, the province's state-of-the-state agenda declaration. Schweitzer and Campbell signed it at the opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

British Columbia could forego between $5 billion and $7 billion in tax revenue that would have come from energy and gold mining along the Flathead. But the province also faced strong pressure from the United States and from the United Nations over the possible pollution and ecological degradation that mining could cause.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney @missoulian.com.

 

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