Schweitzer Says Federal Government Has ‘Let Us Down’ on Land Plan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday that he’s disappointed the federal government hasn’t come up with about $17 million needed to compensate mining companies as part of a deal with Canada to protect the area surrounding Glacier National Park.

The joint U.S.-Canada deal seeks to halt ongoing exploration and calls for a stop to future development of gold, coal, oil and gas in much of the Flathead River Basin. The basin sprawls across some 9,000 square miles and straddles the border.

Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell signed the memorandum of understanding in February. It lays out several goals, including the compensation of two small companies that will have to walk away from their mines.

The governor told a Canadian official in a meeting Thursday that he has gone to the state’s two U.S. senators and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeking federal money.

“I am not confident I can get the federal government to compensate these companies,” Schweitzer told Canadian Consul General Dale Eisler. “The problem here is that our federal partners have let us down.”

Sen. Max Baucus’ office said Schweitzer’s memorandum of understanding is not a binding agreement for the British Columbia government but does represent a good start toward such an international deal. Baucus has not received a formal request for federal money to buy out the foreign interests, said his spokeswoman, Carolyn Bunce.

“Collecting $17 million, or any other amount, in taxpayer dollars to purchase foreign coal, oil or mineral interests is not something that should be done on the fly, without a thorough legislative process — especially when the memorandum of understanding does not provide permanent protection for the Flathead,” Bunce said.

Baucus, Schweitzer and Montana’s other senator, Jon Tester, are all Democrats.

A spokeswoman for Tester said he and Baucus have been working diligently to persuade oil and gas companies on the U.S. side of the border to walk away from planned projects.

“In the last six weeks, Jon and Max secured the voluntary release of over 75 percent of the oil and gas leases on the Montana side of the border at no cost to the American taxpayer,” said the spokeswoman, Andrea Helling. “Jon is working with Max and Brian because landscapes like these just aren’t replaceable. Now is not the time to throw in the towel on protecting the Flathead.”

Schweitzer said he did not think it was likely he could persuade the Montana Legislature to use state money for the project. He said he will look to private sources for the money, perhaps conservation groups with an interest in the deal.

“I have not been able to move either one of our senators, or Hillary Clinton, on the $16 million to $17 million,” Schweitzer told Eisler, the Canadian official. “This would seem to me a very small amount of money in the big picture.”

The governor said he spoke with Clinton roughly a couple weeks ago. The State Department did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

“I am not done. Hillary didn’t say no,” Schweitzer said during the meeting in his office.

The governor said two small companies are owed money under the deal, although it does not name any firms by name. Schweitzer’s office did not immediately return a call asking for the identities of the companies.

“We will find a way on the compensation,” Schweitzer said. “I am just saying we are not getting help from our federal partners.”

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