082511 north fork one

All kinds of watercraft enjoy a quiet float on the North Fork of the Flathead River along Glacier National Park's western boundary. The National Wild and Scenic River offers good fishing and spectacular scenery to those willing to endure the bumpy road to the Canadian border.

Two days after announcing his retirement and, in doing so, promising a full-court press to protect some of Montana’s most pristine places, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to promote the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a bill that would permanently protect the American side of the North Fork watershed from new energy development.

Baucus, a six-term Democrat, announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election in 2014, and vowed to serve out the final year and a half of his term focused on accomplishing legislative priorities that would protect Montana’s scenic gems, and “double down” on passage of the North Fork bill and designation of new wilderness along the Rocky Mountain Front.

Calling the North Fork of the Flathead River an “international treasure” and flanked by posters depicting the scenic watershed, which serves as the headwaters to Glacier National Park, Baucus told the committee he’d spent nearly four decades working to protect the river, beginning with its designation as a Wild and Scenic River in 1975, when he was “a freshman pup” in the House of Representatives.

The new legislation would furnish permanent protections on the U.S. side of the North Fork watershed and preclude new oil and gas development and mining. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act would not impede timber production, hunting or fishing, the senator said, and has garnered broad support from Montana businesses and conservation groups alike.

If passed, the bill would build on the success that Baucus and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., have had in persuading companies to retire oil and gas development leases elsewhere in the area, he said. Companies such as ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Exxon subsidiary XTO Energy have voluntarily relinquished more than 200,000 acres, or about 80 percent of the total leased acreage.

Although Baucus’ environmental legacy had been mixed, due in part to his support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and tax subsidies for the oil and gas industry, his efforts to protect Glacier Park and the North Fork, as well as his support of the Montana Legacy Project, have earned him high praise from conservationists.

“It’s remarkable to me how the North Fork and Glacier Park have provided the conservation bookends for Sen. Baucus’ long Senate career,” said Michael Jamison, Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “He took on the challenge of protecting this landscape in 1975, and today, four decades later as he prepares for retirement, he’s still pressing tirelessly on our behalf to make sure this important work gets done.”

As part of his legacy on the way out the door, Baucus set the conservation measures as high priorities in part because of their potential for bipartisan support.

While the North Fork measure stalled in the last Congress, Baucus’ seniority and clout among Senate leadership has mounted confidence that the bill will pass. Baucus also has a potential ally in Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who has worked more closely with the Democratic senators than his predecessor, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.

Daines, whose support would be critical if Baucus hopes to push his proposals through the Republican-led House, announced last month that he planned to support the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, and soon after held a listening session in Choteau to gauge public opinion about Baucus’ Rocky Mountain Front bill, though he has yet to publicly take a position.

“I think if more people in Washington worked together like we are going to do in Montana, we would get a lot more done,” Daines said last month at a news conference just outside of Glacier National Park. “Efforts to protect the North Fork watershed like the North Fork Watershed Protection Act are a good example of how we can work together to put the interests of Montana first and rise above the partisan politics in Washington.”

Daines, who serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, said he’ll try in earnest to convince Republican lawmakers that the bill is supported by conservationists and industrialists alike, but expects to encounter hurdles along the way.

Baucus said protecting Glacier Park’s headwaters from full-scale industrialization not only safeguards a public treasure, it also defends the lifestyle and livelihood of Montanans.

About 2 million people visit Glacier National Park each year, injecting $100 million into the local economy and supporting 1,400 jobs, he said.

Baucus also drew the committee’s attention to recent headlines about the nearby Kootenai River, an international watershed that last week was named among the nation’s most endangered waterways by a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group. The Kootenai faces threats from five open-pit coal mines along one of its major tributaries in southeastern British Columbia, the heavily mined Elk River.

“All you have to do is look one ridgeline over to know how close the North Fork has come to being ruined,” Baucus said. “Just last week, the Kootenai River was declared one of America’s most endangered rivers because of heavy metal runoff from Canadian mines into Montana. The only reason we know about that pollution is because of research the Congress has funded comparing the Kootenai to the North Fork. I am pressing our Canadian neighbors to apply the lessons of the Flathead to the Kootenai.”

Jamison, of the NPCA, said two years ago the U.S. shook hands with officials in B.C. on a good-faith deal to take mining and drilling out of Glacier Park’s upstream reaches. He said the North Fork measure fulfills an obligation to reciprocate.

“In my 40 years in public office, I have found no place like the North Fork,” Baucus said Thursday. “When I leave the Senate, I want it to stay that way.”

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Reach Tristan Scott at @tristanscott, at tristan.scott@missoulian.com or at (406) 531-9745.

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