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After four decades of collaborative effort, protection of the watershed of the North Fork of the Flathead River from mineral or energy development is almost a reality.

On June 5 of 2013, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced the North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2013 to our nation’s House of Representatives and made a commitment to “lead the charge” to pass the bill. “It’s important that we work together to protect these valuable resources so that future generations can enjoy them for years to come,” he said. “I’m glad to be part of this important bi-partisan effort.” With Daines’ strong support, the act passed committee scrutiny and has gone to the House floor for consideration. With backing by Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, similar legislation received committee approval in the Senate.

When Daines stepped up to the podium that day, he did so on behalf of 1 million Montanans, representing a long history of bipartisan cooperation to ensure that the waters of the North Fork run clear and undammed for generations to come. As a resident of the Flathead Valley for over 40 years, I am proud to have been part of many of these cooperative efforts. Beginning in 1972, then-Congressman Baucus supported legislation designating the North Fork as Montana’s first Wild and Scenic River. In the early 1970s, the Flathead Coalition, a broad-based group, was formed to raise awareness of the potential for Canadian coal mining at Cabin Creek in British Columbia, just north of the U.S.-Canadian border. The coalition succeeded in securing congressional funding for the five-year Flathead Basin Environmental Impact Study. In 1983, as a result of this work, Republicans and Democrats in the Montana Legislature responded to the threat of mining activities in the North Fork by creating the Flathead Basin Commission. The commission was tasked with protecting “the natural resources and environment of the Flathead Basin” and continues to serve as a model of cooperative watershed management.

Another decade passed, but Montana’s commitment to clean water never wavered. In 2003, Republican Gov. Judy Martz signed the “Environmental Cooperation Arrangement” with the government of British Columbia to set mutual terms for the management of the North Fork Flathead River. In 2010, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer followed in Martz’s footsteps and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with British Columbia, agreeing not to develop mines or energy projects in the Flathead River watershed.

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In 2011, the B.C. parliament passed legislation prohibiting mineral development within the watershed, permanently protecting the pristine waters of the Flathead on the Canadian side of the border. In 2013, Baucus and Tester, both Democrats, re-introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to follow suit. The only piece missing was a leader to carry the legislation in the House of Representatives.

Fortunately for all Montanans, Daines took action just six months after taking the oath of office, and he did so with the support of Montanans from all walks of life and a broad range of interests, ranging from the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce to the Montana Wilderness Association. He provided the necessary linchpin that kept decades of bi-partisan work moving forward.

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As we look to the future, I’d encourage Montanans to keep the common goal of clean water and collaborative watershed management in mind. I also hope many Montanans will take a moment to thank Daines for his leadership. We’re fortunate to have a congressional delegation – Republicans and Democrats alike – who can find common ground on conservation in an increasingly partisan political environment. I extend my sincere thanks to them and to those many dedicated groups and individuals who have worked so hard for so long to complete the legacy of cooperation to protect the Transboundary North Fork Watershed.

Dr. Lex Blood of Kalispell is a founder of the Glacier Institute and of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem Education Consortium. He was also a study area manager and steering committee member for the Flathead River Basin Environmental Impact Study.

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