Nature Conservancy to Reimburse Mining Companies for North Fork Protection

By Beacon Staff

Mining companies with operations in the Canadian portions of the Flathead River Basin will be compensated for their investments by two conservation groups to protect the area around Glacier National Park, according to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who made the announcement in Kalispell Monday. The payment will seal a deal cut between Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell one year ago in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to protect the Flathead watershed and Glacier National Park.

The Nature Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy Canada, which are two separate organizations, are splitting the approximately $9.4 million estimate of sunk costs by the mining companies along the headwaters of the North Fork Flathead River.

“I’m saying ‘Thank You’ to The Nature Conservancy,” Schweitzer said in a press conference at Flathead Valley Community College. “They understand how important it is to complete this MOU.”

“There will be no development on the North Fork of the Flathead on the Canadian side for oil or coal,” he added. “It’s about passing this on for generations to come.”

The deal was also referenced in B.C. Lt. Gov. Steven Point’s “Throne Speech” Monday to the province’s parliament, an annual address similar to the U.S. State of the Union speech.

“We will also complete the commitment made with the State of Montana to sustain the environmental values in the Flathead River Basin in a manner consistent with current forestry, recreation, guide outfitting and trapping uses,” Point said, according to a transcript on the B.C. government’s website. “The Memorandum of Understanding and co operation signed by British Columbia and witnessed by interested First Nations and American Tribes has been described by Prime Minister Harper and President Obama as an ‘historic’ agreement to sustain the environmental values in this area. We look forward to implementing this agreement with our partners and paralleling steps taken recently in the United States Congress and by the State of Montana.”

Schweitzer took the opportunity of the announcement to criticize the federal government – and with it, Montana’s federal delegation – for not providing the funds over the course of the last year, calling it, “another example of when ‘big government’ couldn’t find the solution.”

“We’re now four days from having it one year, and Congress, (the Department of) Interior, State Department, they really haven’t provided us anything,” Schweitzer said. “We turned to Nature Conservancy, and they have found the way.”

According to Kat Imhoff, The Nature Conservancy’s Montana director, the deal will be signed “any day,” allowing her conservation group, and its Canadian counterpart, three years to reimburse Max Resource Corp. and Cline Mining Corporation for having to walk away from their mines following the Feb. 18 MOU that restricted mining and drilling along the North Fork in southeastern B.C.

Noting the outlay was relatively small compared to the $490-million Legacy Project, which purchases former timberland for preservation, Imhoff called the North Fork compensation, “a top drawer priority for the chapter.”

Schweitzer said the MOU calls for compensation to the companies only for the investments they have already made, not for any potential income if the mines were fully developed. He praised Campbell, along with Gary Doer, Canadian ambassador to the U.S., for helping negotiate the payments by the conservation groups over the last two months.

The language of the MOU contained a July deadline – since missed – for the two companies to receive compensation, though Schweitzer said at the time the strength of the agreement still held. But then and now, he was critical of the federal government for not providing the funds obligated in the deal, noting that much of the area benefiting from protection was federal, in the form of U.S. Forest Service land and Glacier National Park.

On Monday, Schweitzer read off a list of various other federal earmarks handed out in Montana over the last year, a jab at Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

“We thought, appropriately, this would be an earmark, an act of Congress,” Schweitzer said. “We haven’t been successful in convincing our federal partners.”

“I never heard that anybody was interested in participating on this,” he added. “I didn’t hear anybody say that there was ever a vehicle.”

The governor also reiterated his skepticism over the effectiveness of announcements by Baucus and Tester, over the last year, that they had convinced various companies with leases to drill or mine along the North Fork on the American side of the borer to retire their leases.

Schweitzer called those leases, “null and void since a court decision in 1988.”

Baucus and Tester reintroduced a bill Feb. 1 banning any mining or new oil and gas development along the North Fork. Following Schweitzer’s announcement, they both released statements.

“I’m thrilled my efforts to engage the U.S. Federal government, the Canadian Federal government, British Columbia, Montana, and the NGO community are paying off, Baucus said. “We worked hard to find a solution that protects the North Fork on the Canadian side without asking American taxpayers to pay the cost of buying out their leases, just like we’ve done on our side of the border.”

Addressing concerns that the MOU’s mining ban could be overturned by a future B.C. parliament, Schweitzer said doing so would be the equivalent of the U.S. allowing mining in Glacier National Park.

“Nature Conservancy wouldn’t write a deal and hand a check to a government that hasn’t met up to its obligations in the past,” Schweitzer said. “We’re assured that these lands are protected.”