WEST GLACIER – Flanked by a peak-studded view of Glacier National Park’s western boundary, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh visited the historic Belton Chalet Dec. 19 to celebrate the recent passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.
Dozens of local supporters attended the event, and an eclectic group of stakeholders hailed the measure’s success as a landmark in conservation history, thanking the senators for their heavy-lift in the waning days of a divided Congress’ lame-duck session.
President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law Friday afternoon.
Included in the mix of attendees were members of conservation groups, the timber industry, city and business leaders, and politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Republican Congressman Steve Daines, who also supported the bill, did not attend, but received effusive praise for his willingness to negotiate with his Democratic colleagues.
Former Glacier National Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright, a longtime champion of the bill, which has been in the works for nearly 40 years and bans future mining and drilling on 383,267 acres of federal land in the North Fork of the Flathead River, said the rare bipartisan collaboration and tireless local support of the measure is symbolic of a strong conservation legacy in the Crown of the Continent.
“Being a part of the conservation history of the Flathead, however small of a part that might be, is an amazing thing,” Cartwright said. “It’s equally important to acknowledge all the people, past and present, who have committed themselves in some way to the protection and preservation of the North Fork, including most of you in this room. If not for their hard work and dedication, we would not be here today. We are, in fact, here precisely because we have a proven track record of cooperating and collaborating with one another, no matter what our backgrounds.”
The bill emerged as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act, a piece of must-pass legislation that included a package of 70 national public land bills, the largest collection since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
In addition to the North Fork bill, the package included the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, designates 208,000 acres nearby as a conservation management area, and releases 14,000 acres of wilderness study areas for a new assessment of the potential for oil and gas extraction. It also allows the reassessment of 15,000 additional acres of wilderness study areas for potential energy development.
Tester said the collective decision to attach the package to the defense bill, which allows $585 billion in discretionary spending and $63.7 billion in overseas operations, was the most practical way to move the bills forward, even though it required compromise.
“This is compromise. This is how you come to a deal,” Tester said. “You don’t get everything you want. If it was entirely up to me, we wouldn’t have released [the wilderness study areas] but this is how you come to reach a deal. This is how a democracy is supposed to work. You give a little and you get a lot.”
Added Daines: “The resources, lands and defense provisions in the NDAA represent years of locally-driven, bipartisan work in Montana – and more importantly, it represents how much we can get done when folks come together and find common ground,” Daines stated. “This bill ensures that Montana will continue to play a key role in maintaining a strong national defense. It also protects some of our state’s greatest treasures, increases Montanans’ access to our public lands and expands the responsible development of our energy. I’m glad to see President Obama sign this bill into law today.”
The package has garnered a love-hate response from members of the environmental community because it releases wilderness study areas for potential oil and gas extraction and extends the life of grazing permits on federal lands.
“This is important legislation. I think it deserved an appropriate public discourse, a debate about what the pros and cons are. Instead this was inserted at the last minute with a lack of transparency,” said Arlene Montgomery, program director of the Friends of the Wild Swan, an environmental organization based in Bigfork.
“That sets a really horrible precedent.”
But Tester noted that the bill, despite overwhelming Congressional support, had only languished in the Senate, where three conservative Republicans were determined to block its passage.
U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, were steadfast in their determination to block the bill’s passage.
“People ask why this was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, and it’s because we had three people blocking the North Fork bill, three people who have never been to the North Fork and who frankly couldn’t find it on a map,” Tester said. “It was an obstruction of three and they didn’t take their holds off the North Fork, but they couldn’t hold up the Defense Authorization bill. And we were fortunate to get this package attached. In the end, we can all celebrate.”
“A lot of the folks who are opposed to this don’t want anything to happen, they are perfectly happy with obstructionism and that’s not how you move a country forward,” he added. “That’s not how you do what’s right for Montana.”
Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said maintaining the pristine character of the North Fork of the Flathead River, which tracks along the western edge of Glacier Park, is an economic boon and a draw to the growing tourism industry.
“Researchers tell us that $179 million is what the park adds to our local economy and approximately 2,800 jobs,” he said. “This is a great win for our local economy, and this is a great win for Glacier National Park and the North Fork.”
Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company, said the collaboration of interest groups is the future of managing and protecting public lands.
“We encourage all of our elected officials to continue to seek innovative solutions and bipartisan cooperation that invites legislative certainty for both the management and the protection of our public lands and our aural resources,” he said. “It took a broad coalition of people and varied interests who worked hard on this North Fork bill, and in the end we found common ground on a lot of different public land issues.”
Cartwright said the North Fork Watershed Protection Act reciprocates British Columbia’s rejection of mining in the portion of the North Fork north of the border.
In 2010, Montana reached an historic accord with British Columbia’s leadership, pledging to together protect the wild and scenic region. The following year, Canadian lawmakers upheld their portion of the agreement by safeguarding those lands.
“What British Columbia did in saying no to mining in the North Fork remains a big deal, and so is what’s been accomplished with passage of the North Fork bill,” Cartwright said. “Beyond the actual mechanics of the North Fork bill is a lasting statement of commitment to the landscape that we all love.”
Sarah Lundstrum, of the National Parks Conservation Association, helped organize the event, and gave credit to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus for his early and lasting involvement in working to protect the North Fork.
“This is a great day for the North Fork, Glacier Park and for the entire Flathead Basin,” she said.
Baucus, whose retirement to become ambassador to China cast doubt on the bill’s future, said the bill’s passage was the culmination of decades of work he and the conservation community began more than 40 years ago.
“I’m proud of the work we did to help draft the North Fork Watershed bill and I’m thrilled that it made it over the finish line,” Baucus said. “We started working to protect this beautiful landscape back in the ‘70’s. It took a lot of work, but nothing gets accomplished without hard work and compromise. The North Fork is a vital watershed and ensuring clean water preserves the livelihood in the Flathead valley and beyond. This bill becoming law will allow Montanans and folks everywhere to enjoy this area and preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations.”
Walsh, who withdrew from a Senate race against Daines amid plagiarism revelations, said helping to move the North Fork bill across the finish line would remain a defining moment in his short tenure as a lawmaker.
“This is definitely the most rewarding accomplishment during my time in the U.S. Senate,” he said.