HELENA - The state Land Board on Thursday approved a resolution to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River from future mineral development - but not without some controversy and finger-pointing.
The 3-1 vote approved a resolution that says Montana will work with British Columbia to implement a joint "memo of understanding" to prohibit development of oil, gas, coal and other minerals in the North Fork basin near Glacier National Park.
The resolution also said any mineral lease in Montana's Coal Creek State Forest will not allow any "surface occupancy," essentially banning development, and that any quarry or sand-and-gravel operation will be limited to 4.94 acres in size.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Land Board member, said the agreement with British Columbia will "ensure the protection of the Flathead Basin and Glacier National Park for this generation and generations to come."
Earlier Thursday, the board agreed to lease 572 million tons of state-owned coal for development of a coal mine in southeastern Montana, near Otter Creek.
Opponents of that decision wondered aloud how the board could justify protecting the North Fork from coal mining while voting to lease coal for a massive mine in rural, southeastern Montana.
Beth Kaeding, former head of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said leasing the coal will harm two valleys, the Tongue River and Otter Creek, that are the site of many farms and ranches.
"Frankly, Northern Plains is considering petitioning the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to rename the Tongue River as the East Fork of the Flathead River," she said. "Maybe then you would consider this area of the state special enough to protect from the ravages of mining, oil and gas, and coal development."
Denise Juneau, the state's superintendent of public instruction and a Land Board member, said she, too, found it ironic that the board would act to protect the North Fork against coal development in British Columbia while endorsing coal mining in a pristine area of Montana.
State Auditor Monica Lindeen, a Land Board member who voted for the leasing of the Montana coal, voted against the North Fork resolution, saying it wasn't equitable to ban development in western Montana but not in eastern Montana.
Schweitzer, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and Juneau voted for the North Fork resolution. Attorney General Steve Bullock, the fifth member of the board, wasn't present for the vote.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.