Off Message

By Kellyn Brown

It’s hard to know what to make of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s recent criticism of his “federal partners” for, according to him, failing to secure $17 million to compensate Canadian mining companies so they will abandon their mining leases near Glacier National Park.

By federal partners, the governor was referring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the state’s two U.S. senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. All of them, like Schweitzer, are Democrats. And all of them, he told the Canadian government last week, “have let us down.”

Schweitzer assured Canadian Consul General Dale Eisler that he would find a way to pay two small companies north of the border so the two sides could finalize a deal that would prohibit exploration in much of the Flathead River Basin. But he also made a point to mention that he was getting no help from Montana’s U.S. delegation.

The timing of Schweitzer’s denunciation, on June 3, was odd. Just one day prior Baucus and Tester announced that Chevron had retired its interest in more than 11,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the area. In April, the senators announced that ConocoPhilips had agreed to retire its interest in nearly 170,000 acres in the North Fork. About 75 percent of oil and gas leases on the Montana side of the Flathead have now been retired voluntarily.

Moreover, Baucus’ office said that the senator had never received a formal request for funding to purchase “any oil and gas interests in the North Fork.”

“Max is of the belief that 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.”

Whatever your opinion is of Baucus, who has been widely panned over the last year for a variety of issues – from his role in health care reform to the nomination of his girlfriend to U.S. attorney – his militant stance in preserving Flathead waters has been unwavering. So much, in fact, that while fending off mines the state’s senior has made few Canadian friends.

For years, Baucus vehemently opposed a British Petroleum proposal to drill for coal-bed methane in the Canadian Flathead. When the oil giant abandoned its plans in early 2008, Baucus, at a town hall meeting at Flathead Valley Community College attended by both Schweitzer and Tester, said bluntly, “I made it clear. Ain’t no way this is going to happen, period.”

His lofty rhetoric drew some criticism, but you always knew where he stood. And the united front at least played some part in the governor and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell signing a memorandum of understanding in February that laid the groundwork for banning all mining and drilling near Glacier National Park on both sides of the border.

But with Schweitzer’s recent statements, that alliance appears to be fraying a bit. And it’s unclear why, on the 100th anniversary of the park, state and federal government officials are allowing $17 million to hold up a deal decades in the making. Even if logistically an agreement has proven more complicated than first thought, the governor and his federal partners should still be using the same talking points.

No one has indicated that the memorandum of understanding, which is far from binding, is in jeopardy. Since it was signed, Montana’s U.S. senators have introduced legislation that would prohibit mines in the North Fork Flathead River Valley, which is another positive step forward. Now they must address existing leases.

Let’s hope that any feud between them and our governor doesn’t result in a fateful step back.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.