North Fork Mining Ban Begins to Take Shape

By Beacon Staff

The effects of an international mining and drilling ban in the Upper Flathead Valley are beginning to ripple on local and federal levels, with new limits on gravel extraction and production in the North Fork of the Flathead River and proposed legislation in Congress.

The recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), agreed upon by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, stops all coal, oil and gas exploration and development upstream of Glacier National Park.

It also specifically limits gravel pits and quarries in the North Fork to less than five acres and a production level of less than 20,000 tons a year. Schweitzer visited the Flathead County Commission on Feb. 26 and asked the county to find a way to implement new regulations on extractive industries in the North Fork.

While the new limitations would only affect one pit, formalizing a regulation would be a show of good faith toward the Canadians, Schweitzer said.

“The only thing that extends to the entire Flathead is that you get to have clean water forever,” Schweitzer told the commissioners, comparing it to the roughly $3 billion in development the Canadians are giving up.

The existing gravel pit in the North Fork is thought to be on federal land, according to Flathead County Roads and Bridges Operations Manager Guy Foy. The county owns a gravel pit near Martin City, but it most likely won’t be affected.

Existing pits would be grandfathered in regardless of size, according to the governor’s office.

County Commissioner Joe Brenneman noted that Flathead County residents have already taken steps to improve water quality with new wastewater management plans.

The North Fork zoning district covers the area in question, and a majority of it is state and federal land. Most of the private land plan is between Camas Creek and the Canadian border, according to Flathead County Planning and Zoning Director Jeff Harris.

The U.S. Forest Service owns just over 47 percent of the land at 246,600 acres; the National Park Service has over 46 percent of the land at 244,200 and the state owns 18,600 acres, coming in at 3.5 percent. Private land accounts for 2.7 percent of the neighborhood plan, with 14,480 acres.

Part of the reason Schweitzer said he was visiting was to get local government to agree on any changes instead of mandating changes from the state level. Local jurisdiction is best, he said.

Harris echoed this sentiment, saying the only way to handle any new regulations is to take the MOU to the North Fork Land Use Advisory Committee and get their point of view on the situation.

The new limitations could be solved with a zoning definition in the North Fork zoning district, but the NFLUAC could have other ideas, Harris said.

County Commissioner Dale Lauman said during the meeting that he had concerns for people who may have claims and quarries in the affected area. Schweitzer noted that quarries are still permitted, but they would have to follow the five-acre, 20,000-ton limits.

The MOU places a July 2010 deadline on the mining and exploration ban, but Harris said the county would have a tough time meeting it if the zoning regulations are amended. The process takes four to six months, Harris noted, but even beginning it should be a show of good faith to Montana’s northern neighbors.

The governor also stressed the importance of Flathead County working with state and federal delegations as they move forward to formalize the ban stateside with legislation.

Montana’s U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester introduced a bill to Congress on March 4 that would officially prevent future mining or development in the Upper Flathead Valley. The legislation mirrors similar efforts in British Columbia.

“This is about protecting the tourism economy and the outdoor heritage of one of the most beautiful places on earth,” Baucus wrote in a press release. “More than 90 percent of this land is federal land, so it’s got to pass Congress to become a reality.”

The new legislation does not address retiring the 103 existing oil and gas leases on federal land, but representatives from the governor’s office said that process should be similar to the slow process of retiring the leases on the Rocky Mountain Front, which was finalized earlier this year.

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