The U.S. House of Representatives passed the North Fork Watershed Protection Act by voice vote Tuesday afternoon, sending the historic legislation back to the Senate for final approval.
Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told his colleagues the bill was the first landscape protection act in nearly 30 years to garner the support of Montana’s entire congressional delegation. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, both Democrats, have also pushed it on their side of the Capitol.
“Sen. Max Baucus began working on this bill since his very first year in Congress, in 1974,” Daines said of the state’s former senior senator, who retired in February. “I’m proud to be part of the effort to get it done and across the finish line.”
Baucus authored the North Fork Protection Act in the Senate and made it one of the final priorities in his 36-year congressional career. But his retirement to become ambassador to China left its future in doubt.
The bill protects 430,000 acres along the north and middle forks of the Flathead River from energy development while allowing traditional uses such as logging, hunting, livestock grazing and gravel mining. It dovetails with a 2010 memorandum of understanding between the Canadian province of British Columbia and Montana to protect the transboundary Flathead River from energy development.
Walsh was appointed to fill the remainder of Baucus’ term, and is one of several Democrats running against Daines for the seat in this election year. He officially co-sponsored the bill last week.
“The North Fork is among Montana’s greatest natural treasures and a vibrant part of our outdoor heritage and the countless jobs that rely on it,” Walsh said in a statement after the House vote. “Today’s vote on the North Fork Watershed Protection Act brings us a step closer to preserving it for current and future generations. However, until the Senate provides its approval, we will fall short of the decades-long effort to secure the North Fork.”
National Parks Conservation Association program manager Michael Jamison noted the bill has support of both energy companies such as ConocoPhillips and wilderness advocates around Glacier National Park. Passage of the bill would complete the United States’ share of the agreement to protect the area.
“British Columbia’s lawmakers enacted similar legislation to protect Glacier Park’s Canadian headwaters, and those neighbors expect Montanans to do the same,” Jamison said in a statement. “Rep. Daines has recognized this obligation, and has created an opportunity to uphold our end of that international bargain. This legislation defends our source of revenue and recreation – the place where we hunt and hike and fish, where we harvest timber and graze livestock. Today’s passage through the House represents a critical step toward safeguarding our rural heritage, and ensuring that our children can enjoy those same Montana opportunities.”
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., also called on the House to support the bill, saying Montana has made clear its intention to protect the watershed. He added that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled previous energy leases in the area were issued improperly and invalid.
Daines said 80 percent of those leases have already been voluntarily released.
“The Flathead is considered a red-ribbon stream,” Daines said. “That’s Montana’s version of a blue-ribbon trout stream. This watershed is the gateway to one of the crown jewels of the national park system – Glacier National Park.”