KALISPELL - Business leaders are lobbying for a ban on mining west of Glacier National Park, saying a clean environment is critical to the region's economy.
The area, said Kalispell Chamber of Commerce president Joe Unterreiner, plays "a very important part in our economic vitality."
Unterreiner addressed his comments in a letter to Sen. Max Baucus, who on Thursday introduced legislation prohibiting mines in the North Fork Flathead River Valley.
Baucus teamed with fellow Democrat Sen. Jon Tester on the legislation, which comes on the heels of similar protections north of the border.
For more than three decades, Montana and British Columbia have clashed over Canadian mining plans north of Glacier Park. The province has pushed for coal, gold and coalbed methane development, while downstream interests have worried about contamination flowing south into Montana.
Last month, British Columbia ended the dispute by making mining off limits.
A ban on Montana mining, Unterreiner wrote, would ultimately prove good for business.
Calling Flathead Lake "a critical economic engine," Unterreiner said his business group believes "oil and gas development in the Whitefish Range would be inconsistent with our interest to see the entire watershed protected from upstream (Canadian) pollution.
"How can we ask the Canadians to forego development of their coal and gas resources within the North Fork watershed if we are not willing to make the same decision?"
The bill introduced Thursday would prevent new mining, oil and gas development and coalbed gas extraction on this side of the border, and puts a moratorium on future development leases.
"This legislation is such good news," Baucus said. "I've been working to protect the Flathead for more than 30 years, and this is a sign we are closer than ever to the finish line."
Tester touted the area's clean waters and wildlife, saying "Canada stepped up to be a good neighbor. Now we're going to do our part to safeguard this area so our kids and grandkids can fish, hunt, hike and camp in it like we do."
Tourism statistics show that more than two million visitors spend more than $150 million annually in the Flathead.
"The Chamber," Unterreiner said, "wishes to ensure that Glacier Park, the North Fork River and Flathead Lake remain as economically productive as they are today."