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A major step towards protection of the North Fork Flathead River

Katrin Frye

A major element for protection of the North Fork Flathead River Valley moved forward this week. Representative Steve Daines announced a bill that retires many oil and gas leases in the area unanimously passed the House Natural Resources Committee. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2013 would restrict new mineral development in the North Fork of the Flathead.

This House bill mirrors one introduced by Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus.

Glacier Program Manager Michael Jamison with the National Parks Conservation Association said the issue was taken up by Senator Baucus when he was first in office, in the late 1970’s. At the time there were several proposals for mountain-top-removal coal mines in the Canadian Flathead.

“So, for 30 years there was a fairly robust trans-boundary water dispute going on between Canada and the US, between British Columbia and Montana, about what the downstream impacts from those mines might be,” Jamison said.

In 2010 Canada committed to withdraw the British Columbian Flathead from future mining and drilling in the area that is the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana. Jamison said part of that cross-border agreement is that Montana would follow suit.

He said this legislation is one piece of protecting the North Fork. Other pieces include the Wild and Scenic River designation that the North Fork has, and other protection comes through the ongoing Flathead National Forest planning process.

“And part of it, frankly, depends on the Canadians on their side of the border in terms of making sure that timber harvest, wildlife connectivity, mining in adjacent drainages and so forth, don’t impact the North Fork. This is a tremendously important piece of a very complicated puzzle that we are getting very close to getting snapped together,” Jamison said.

With the Senate and now the House poised to take action on the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a decision will likely get made before Senator Baucus leaves office.

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