Opinion

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Guest Column

An Urgent Call to Save a Guardian of the Flathead

Marginalizing the Flathead Basin Commission would destroy Montana’s best and most accomplished watershed organization in the AIS fight

Montana’s crown jewel is in imminent danger from a plan to marginalize the Flathead Basin Commission (FBC) and force out its excellent Executive Director Caryn Miske.

John Tubbs, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), recently proposed zeroing out the entire staff budget of the FBC. The official reason is that the budget impasse between Democrats and Republicans is now forcing agencies to cut 10 percent. That doesn’t pass the smell test. Within the DNRC, only the FBC is being targeted for a cut exceeding 70 percent – even though it constitutes just two-tenths of one percent of the department’s total budget. In fact, the proposed cut would actually result in Montana losing funding, because every year the FBC’s Miske has raised well over a half-million dollars in grant funds to bolster protection of the Flathead from the menace of aquatic invasive species (AIS).

If approved by the governor, this cut would destroy Montana’s best and most accomplished watershed organization in the AIS fight. It would also come down at a critical moment, with non-native mussels now confirmed in Tiber Reservoir, less than a three-hour drive from Marias Pass.

Established by the Legislature in 1983 as an independent commission, the FBC has earned bipartisan support ever since, effectively and efficiently carrying out its mission as a guardian of the Flathead. Comprised of citizen members, industry representatives, and officials from state, tribal, federal, and county governments, the FBC has proven its unique ability to solve complex, multi-jurisdictional problems.

The FBC led the effort to protect the Basin from coal mines north of the border. And for the past decade, the FBC has been a state leader of the effort to prevent the introduction of exotic zebra and quagga mussels. It has pushed successfully for tougher standards and more action, often overcoming surprising resistance and obstruction from key figures in state agencies. The commission initiated K-9 inspection teams, helped establish check stations on the Blackfeet Reservation (where mussel-fouled boats were almost immediately intercepted), worked closely with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, built a multi-agency regional work-group on aquatic invasive species, incorporated invasive-species funding into federal legislation, and advocated near and far for stricter measures to keep non-native mussels out of the Flathead.

If what the FBC advocated had been implemented statewide, it’s possible that we would have avoided the disastrous introduction of non-native mussels into the upper Missouri, confirmed last year. For years leading up to 2016, the state failed to prevent the launching of out-of-state boats without prior inspection, and left our eastern borders almost entirely unguarded (our eastern gates were even unguarded for much of this year).

This past April, the Legislature passed HB 622, one of the session’s few major AIS bills. For the Flathead Basin, the most important part is Section 7, which mandates a Flathead pilot program of “no launch without prior inspection,” administered by the FBC in coordination with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP).

Section 7 contains specific provisions that would make it by far the strongest regional AIS program in the state. The FBC, CSKT, and the Bullock administration all testified in support of HB 622.The FBC traveled to Helena to meet with FWP and ensure that Section 7 would work smoothly as a complement to the newly expanded but still emerging (and still struggling) statewide efforts. We were assured by both FWP and DNRC that everything would be moved forward as quickly as possible.

But now, the DNRC’s proposed elimination of FBC staff would abort the Flathead Pilot Program. If approved by Bullock, it would leave our waters far more vulnerable to permanent destruction by AIS.

We must raise our voices for a wiser course of action. Please write to the governor (governor@mt.gov), and to Nancy Ballance, chair of the Legislative Finance Committee (nancyballance@aol.com and leadams@mt.gov). Urge full and speedy implementation of all of our AIS laws, and a fair and equal distribution of budget cuts with continued funding for Flathead Basin Commission staff.

Thompson Smith, of Charlo, is the former chair and a three-term governor appointed citizen member of Flathead Basin Commission, and a founding member of the Montana Invasive Species Advisory Council.

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