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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Future Uncertain For De-funded Flathead Basin Commission

An oily sheen on the shoreline of Flathead Lake near Somers, MT, May 2017.
Nicky Ouellet
An oily sheen on the shoreline of Flathead Lake near Somers. May 2017.

A group tasked by the legislature to protect water quality in the Flathead Valley is in jeopardy after its funding was cut during Montana’s special legislative session in November and its executive director was terminated in February.

On Wednesday the Flathead Basin Commission will meet in Pablo and reassess its future.

"I do question the current value of institutions like the Commission," said John Tubbs, the director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation at a water summit in Helena in March.

The DNRC administers the Flathead Basin Commission. It was created by the Montana legislature in 1983 in response to concerns about coal mining in British Columbia threatening water quality in northwest Montana. Commission members, appointed by the governor, are tasked with working across agency and government boundaries to protect the Flathead Basin.

But DNRC Director Tubbs says the Commission has become redundant.

"I think the future is more at the watershed level, at the collaborative effort in our forests and not through authorized commissions and state statute created in the 1980s," said Tubbs.

Tubbs said that more recently, organically formed, citizen-initiated watershed groups have taken on watershed protection and conservation.

"I think that that power exceeds the type of power a government appointment commission has because it is the true stakeholders of the people who live in the communities. It seems to work in eastern Montana," said Tubbs. "There’s no commission, task force or steering committee anointed by the governor in any place east of the Rockies."

Caryn Miske disagrees. She’s the former executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, who Tubbs terminated in February.

"Even now nobody is picking up the slack for what the Basin Commission did," said Miske.

Miske said in recent years, the Flathead Basin Commission has coordinated efforts to keep invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, out of northwest Montana.

She says without funding from DNRC, coordination among local groups like Tubbs favors isn’t happening. For example, she says some boat inspection stations are opening later than they would have if the Commission had remained fully funded, that lake monitoring likely won’t be as robust as it’s been in the past, and that a special pilot program that would have placed extra protections around the basin has been scrapped.

"So the concern of course that I have is that the basin and really the headwaters of the entire Columbia System is now at greater risk as a result of the Flathead Basin Commission no longer working on aquatic invasive species prevention," said Miske.

Both Miske and DNRC Director Tubbs declined to comment on why Miske was terminated in February. Her’s was the Commission’s only salaried position. In the wake of state lawmakers eliminating the Commission’s nearly $150,000 budget last November, members are seeking outside funding.

Governor Steve Bullock replaced a few long-standing commissioners in February and asked the Commission to redefine its role moving forward.

Commission Vice Chair Richard Janssen, who also directs the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Natural Resources Division, says despite the changes, the Commission’s mission to protect the basin’s high water quality remains the same, even if its future is unclear.

"I think it's a transition," said Janssen. "We're just going to have to see. It's going to require most of the Flathead Basin Commission members to attend the meetings so we can keep moving forward, and I think that will happen."

Like Miske, Janssen disagrees that the Commission has outlived its role.

"I don't believe the Flathead Basin Commission is redundant," said Janssen. "What I do believe is it has a role in the basin. It was created by Montana legislature to monitor and protect water quality here in the basin, and we’re still doing that."

The Commission will elect new leadership at its meeting Wednesday. Although its budget has been eliminated, it can’t formally be dissolved without an act of the state legislature.

On Wednesday, commissioners will hear updates on its budget, the status of a water bottling plant outside Kalispell, and changes to this year’s aquatic invasive species monitoring and prevention measures, among other priority issues in the basin. The meeting is open to the public and begins at 10AM at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Tribal Council Chambers in Pablo.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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