Governor Suggests Columbia Basin Bill Could Help Protect North Fork

By Beacon Staff

Gov. Brian Schweitzer called on Montana’s federal delegation Sunday to support legislation by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, dedicated to restoring the Columbia River Basin, as a way to fund commitments in the agreement between Montana and British Columbia to protect the North Fork from mining and drilling in Canada.

“Don’t be running after the bus, get on the bus and sit beside the driver,” Schweitzer said. “And this bill is the vehicle.”

Schweitzer suggested money could be appropriated in that bill to pay Canadian mining companies for their sunk costs, which could range as high as $17 million, and that legislation already introduced by Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana may “be bogged down” by a rider attached by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that would allow horizontal drilling.

Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for Baucus, said Merkley’s bill authorizes funding, but doesn’t appropriate it, so it couldn’t presently be used for paying Canadian mining companies, the costs of which are still unclear. But Baucus and Tester are working on an amendment to fund needs specific to the Flathead.

“While this bill is only intended to authorize funding, and it is by no means a done deal, it’s an opportunity to find additional support for things like the ongoing environmental baseline assessments that need funding to continue,” Matsdorf said. “Max and Jon are going to keep pushing forward until this issue is resolved once and for all.”

He added that Baucus and Tester’s original bill protecting the North Fork continues to make progress through committee.

Baucus and Tester on Monday called for four-way talks between Montana, B.C., Canada and the U.S. to secure permanent protection for the Flathead. That came on the heels of an announcement by the White House that President Barack Obama met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper last weekend during the G-20 summit to discuss how U.S. and Canadian federal agencies could support the agreement signed in February between Montana and B.C.

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