KALISPELL - While about 80 percent of existing energy exploration leases in the North Fork Flathead have been retired by the world's leading oil, gas and mining companies, a handful of parcels remain in contention by smaller firms.
Those holdings include nearly 138,000 acres in Flathead County that extend into the Haskill Basin drainage, the primary source of Whitefish's drinking water supply, as well as along the western edge of Glacier National Park in the Flathead National Forest and underneath Big Mountain.
The 74 leases are owned by Devon Energy Corp., an Oklahoma-based natural gas producer and one of the last holdouts in congressional efforts to expand watershed protection to the entire North Fork Flathead drainage.
U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester are key players in championing protections on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, and Baucus' office confirmed that the senior senator has reached out to all remaining lease holders and encouraged them to relinquish their holdings.
On Friday, Devon Energy Corp. spokesman Chip Minty said retirement of the leases is likely but that discussions are ongoing.
"We understand the importance of these issues and we are continuing to have conversations with your senators in an effort to reach an amicable solution for everyone involved," Minty said in a telephone interview.
Voluntary retirement of the leases is Devon Energy's "central consideration," Minty said, adding that "at this point we haven't concluded our talks."
In 2010, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Anadarko, Allen and Kirmse Ltd., and XTO Energy relinquished development leases along the North Fork, helping Montana keep its part of an agreement with British Columbia to forego Flathead energy exploration and mining on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
Then in November, the oil company BP voluntarily gave up its rights to explore for energy along the western border of Glacier National Park, retiring all of its remaining holdings in the North Fork of the Flathead and bringing the total of retired leases in the region to more than 200,000 acres.
"If you look at the leadership that has been shown by all these major companies it is clear that relinquishing leases makes sense, and hopefully Devon Energy can follow that leadership," said Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Surrendering the holdings is particularly important because Devon Energy owns leases in direct proximity to Haskill Basin and the Whitefish drinking water supply, Hammerquist said.
The Haskill Basin drainage is located north and east of the city of Whitefish and Whitefish Lake.
Withdrawal also makes sense logistically because any businesses that hope to explore for oil and gas would be required to navigate hurdles established by the National Environmental Policy Act and would likely face opposition from conservation groups.
"I think it's imperative that Devon Energy relinquish its leases," he said. "When you see all these other major companies retiring leases and becoming active participants in these protection efforts, it doesn't make sense for them to hold out."
Other local conservation groups were optimistic that the path to discouraging exploration and development of coal mines and gas drilling in the trans-boundary Flathead watershed will continue to be successful.
"It's a matter of talking to (Devon) and getting them to recognize the uniqueness of this area and join in with their peers, these other oil companies who have voluntarily withdrawn their leases," said Dave Hadden of the Flathead Coalition.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.