Glaring Differences on North Fork Protection

By Beacon Staff

Despite a common goal of securing permanent environmental protection for the North Fork of the Flathead River, Montana’s governor and senators don’t appear to be on the same page. The differences between the positions of Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester extend from the binding strength of the memorandum of understanding between Montana and British Columbia to the necessity of an international treaty to protect the transboundary Flathead region. And these policy differences are becoming increasingly glaring.

On June 30, Baucus and Tester, both Democrats, sent a letter to Schweitzer, also a Democrat, containing pointed questions responding to the governor’s criticisms in recent weeks that Montana’s federal delegation was not coming through with funding to support the MOU Schweitzer signed in February with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell protecting the North Fork. As part of the deal, two Canadian mining companies are owed as much as $17 million for investments they made exploring for coal and gold near the headwaters of the North Fork, prior to the ban.

Baucus and Tester pushed back at the governor’s criticisms in the letter, asking where the money would come from, where it would go, whether such reimbursement is even legal under Canadian law and what was the relevance of a July 2010 deadline – since missed – contained in the MOU, among other questions.

“U.S. taxpayers are being asked to send money to private, foreign corporations. And in these tight economic times, we must justify every expense,” Baucus and Tester wrote. “The Federal government was not involved in the negotiation of the MOU, nor is the Federal government a party to the agreement. Therefore such spending would be highly unusual without a complementary bilateral agreement between the United States and Canada, as well as the establishment of permanent, legally binding protections in the North Fork.”

Schweitzer replied the next day to the senators, in a letter disputing that there is anything unusual about the U.S. government contributing to agreements across borders “to complete an arrangement for the benefit of all parties involved.”

“Over $200 million in earmarked requests submitted by the two of you this year would be granted to private corporations,” Schweitzer wrote in a July 1 letter. “Also, we have discussed on several occasions the similar 1997 arrangement for the U.S. government to pay $65 million in exchange for closure of the New World Mine near Yellowstone National Park,” which he said involved paying a subsidiary of a Canadian mining company.

Schweitzer also made clear in his July 1 letter that he believes the federal government bears an obligation to come through with funding, whether in the form of an appropriation for an agency, existing legislation or a stand-alone bill: “Considering the relationship to Glacier National Park, the preponderance of federal Forest Service lands in the area, the combined interests of all downstream states and the professed strong interest of the Obama Administration, federal agencies and lawmakers, it was abundantly clear and proper that the federal government would play a key role in securing this compensation.”

Rep. Denny Rehberg, meanwhile, a Republican seeking reelection this year who has not been as active as Schweitzer, Baucus or Tester in working toward protection of the North Fork, is framing the debate over compensating the mining companies as an example of heavy spending by Democrats.

“Yet another taxpayer bailout for a private company should have no problem getting the necessary support from Democrats in Congress who seem eager to lock down the title of ‘The Bailout Congress,’” Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said. “Before Denny could even consider adding $17 million more to the deficit, Gov. Schweitzer needs to do a lot more homework and spell out to Congress and taxpayers all of the potential costs and benefits in detail. He simply hasn’t done that yet.”

But despite the letters back and forth between Schweitzer and the senators underscoring differences on the role of federal funding in protecting the North Fork, Baucus and Tester held a conference call with reporters Thursday emphasizing that all three leaders have the same goal.

“The bottom line is that we’re all working together and making a lot of progress protecting the North Fork,” Baucus said. “The goal here is permanent protection.”

Tester added that answers to their questions were necessary if they are to seek taxpayer dollars appropriating funds to compensate the mining companies – particularly since it remains unclear the exact amount owed, with $17 million considered an estimate of the maximum compensation.

“Where’s the money going to go? Does it have to be federal dollars?” Tester asked. “We’ve asked for the answers; we’ll work together to get the answers.”

“We’re just doing our homework here,” Tester added. “In the Senate, we’ve got 60 people to convince.”

In an interview with Schweitzer following the senators’ conference call, the governor said Baucus and Tester already have the answers to the questions they posed; they simply need to be able to provide that information to their colleagues should they seek funds.

“None of these questions have plowed new ground,” Schweitzer said. “The purpose of this letter isn’t to educate the senators, because they know all of this, as best we can give.”

Nor are these the only differences between the positions of the governor and Baucus and Tester. Schweitzer has said previously that the MOU signed between him and Campbell was “as binding as any act of Congress.”

But Baucus Thursday, while praising Schweitzer and Campbell for the deal, said passing federal legislation is stronger, and that, “to achieve permanence, we have to build on the MOU.”

“It’s much more difficult to overturn legislation,” Baucus added. “It’s not that difficult, to be honest, to overturn an MOU.”

“We’ve got to make sure the deal is solid or we end up with egg on our face,” Tester said.

Tester and Baucus also touted their negotiations with oil giants like Chevron and ConocoPhillips, getting these companies to retire leases on nearly 200,000 acres in the North Fork. Schweitzer, however, reiterated his assertion during a June 27 press conference at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Whitefish that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has the authority to retire the leases in one fell swoop following a 1988 court ruling that many were illegal.

Tester and Baucus said they preferred a different approach.

“I think it’s better that this is being done voluntarily rather than they be ordered that they be withdrawn,” Baucus said. “I just personally met with the president of ConocoPhillips and just straight out asked him.”

Tester agreed: “It’s better to work with sugar rather than vinegar.”

Perhaps the most glaring difference between Schweitzer and the senators is the question of whether an international treaty is necessary. In a June 28 announcement, Baucus and Tester called for four-party talks between the governments of Montana, B.C., Canada and the United States to eventually work toward negotiating an international treaty as the only way to permanently protect the transboundary Flathead.

In his July 1 letter, Schweitzer clearly disagrees.

“There appears to be no apparent role for the Canadian federal government given the primacy the province of British Columbia retains over all resources in question,” Schweitzer wrote. “In our discussion with State Department officials we were told they saw no necessity for a treaty.”

As for four-party talks, Schweitzer said he would participate if a funding vehicle for compensating the mining companies emerged, or there was a proposal that both he and Campbell agree would, “improve the MOU or add another layer.” But until those questions are answered, he does not appear to see the point in further conferences.

“This is not going to be Yalta,” Schweitzer said. “There’s not much to talk about; let’s think of the vehicle and then we’ll move on it.”