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Quagga mussels

Quagga mussels cover a boat propeller in this file photo.

POLSON — The Upper Columbia Conservation Commission is set to expand its membership under a new law.

Montana lawmakers created the commission, often referred to as UC3, in 2017. They tasked it with monitoring water quality and undertaking environmental protection efforts in Montana’s slice of the Columbia River Basin — the front line of a multimillion-dollar effort to stop the spread of invasive zebra and quagga mussels.

Originally, the group had nine voting members, serving staggered four-year terms. But under legislation sponsored by state Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, and signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock, it’s set to grow to 13.

Cuffe has long been active in water-related issues. At the commission’s Wednesday meeting, he explained that he’d gotten the impression that “the big focus here was Flathead Valley, Flathead Lake, Flathead River. There's nothing wrong with that. … But at the same time we needed outreach all the way to Butte, all the way out the Bitterroot to Darby, and so some specific changes were made on membership.”

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Under Cuffe’s Senate Bill 257, the UC3 still has representation from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and several sectors, such as conservation districts and hydropower, with a role in the mussel fight. But the new law removed the sole representative from recreation organizations, and added representatives of outdoor organizations from the Flathead, Kootenai, Bitterroot, Seeley-Swan and Upper Clark Fork watersheds.

Brian “BJ” Johnson, owner of Sea Me Paddle Kayaking on Flathead and Whitefish lakes, currently holds the recreation organization position. The bill specifically calls for a representative from “a conservation, natural resources, or fishing or hunting organization” from each of the watersheds. UC3 chair Lori Curtis said Johnson would hold the seat for the Flathead, and said the commission’s executive committee would be fielding applications for the empty seats (visit http://dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/cardd/montana-invasive-species-program/uc3 for more information).

The legislation also broadened the commission’s non-voting membership. Previously, the House speaker and Senate president each appointed a legislator to serve as a non-voting member, coordinating the appointments to be bipartisan. Now, each will appoint two members, one from each party.

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