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North Fork of the Flathead River

A bipartisan bill to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River from mining and energy development got a warm reception in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., presented his version of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act to the House Natural Resources Committee, along with Whitefish City Councilman John Anderson. The bill is a companion of legislation by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., that passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June.

A spokesman from Stoltze Lumber Co. was unable to make Thursday’s hearing in person, but Daines testified to a list of other backers that included the Montana Logging Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Citizens for Balanced Use, the Wilderness Society and ConocoPhillips.

“My support for this bill marks the first time in almost 30 years the Montana delegation has supported public lands legislation in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion,” Daines said in his remarks to the committee. “At no cost to the American taxpayer and in no loss in production of minerals and no loss in timber harvests, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act protects multiple use in a special part of our state from future energy development on 362,000 acres in the Flathead and Kootenai National Forests next to Glacier National Park.”

The bills stem from an effort to protect the transboundary Flathead River as it flows from its headwaters in British Columbia to the northwest corner of Glacier National Park. The river forms the park’s western border for roughly 45 miles.

In 1974, a Canadian firm proposed an open-pit coal mine and power plant six miles north of the U.S. border near the river. In the 1980s, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management started leasing tracts in the Flathead National Forest for oil and gas exploration. Opposition to those projects, led by Baucus, convinced many lease holders to voluntarily surrender their projects.

When another Canadian company announced a new effort to seek coal in the Flathead headwaters in the 2000s, Baucus, Sen. Jon Tester, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer started negotiating with the British Columbia provincial government to protect the area. A UNESCO review team praised the region’s biological diversity and pristine condition. That prompted Schweitzer and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to sign a memorandum of understanding during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver banning mineral and energy development there.

The Nature Conservancy in Canada agreed to compensate Canadian mining firms that had exploration leases for gold projects in the area. Meanwhile, Baucus and Tester convinced more of the remaining lease holders on the U.S. side to relinquish their energy projects along the North Fork of the Flathead. But they also needed federal government acknowledgement of the agreement to match the Canadian efforts.

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“On the United States side of the border, some 90 percent of the North Fork watershed is federally owned,” Anderson said in his remarks to the House committee. “I now ask you to provide the same support to my community and my state as our neighbors to the north have received from their government.”

Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman said the bill’s hearing got a warm reception.

“The Democrat ranking member (Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.) of the subcommittee applauded the fact that a bipartisan bill with widespread local support, from both industry and conservation groups, was moving forward in the committee,” Lockman said in an email. “So we feel very pleased by how the hearing went.”

Whether the bill will get a full vote in either chamber, or get wrapped into an omnibus public lands bill remains to be seen. Baucus has described it as a capstone to his Senate career.

“I’ve spent nearly 40 years working to protect the North Fork and the Montana jobs that depend on it,” Baucus said in a statement. “This bill is the final piece of the puzzle and we have more momentum behind us than ever to get it done.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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