Daines Choosing His Battles

By Beacon Staff

Montana’s new Republican Congressman Steve Daines spent a good part of his Easter “vacation” from Congress on a “natural resources” tour, including visits to forest-products mills in Missoula, Seeley Lake, and here in the Flathead.

But after making the expected promise that he hasn’t “lost sight of the foundation of this economy – timber, oil, gas, coal,” Daines made some real news:

He moseyed over to a little gathering at the Belton Chalet where he announced his support for legislation that would permanently close the North Fork to any future minerals exploration and development, championed by Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

Wilderness lovers wanting to permanently lock up the Rocky Mountain Front immediately speculated that “Representative Daines could be a leader for the [Front] if he likes what he hears” at a Choteau meeting – scheduled after press time.

Is Daines a tree-hugger out of the closet? Gosh, I hope – and think – not.

Daines is a sharp guy. He’s watched the Left spend the past decade flogging Republicans (justifiably) for fighting unwinnable wars – you know, like Afghanistan, with nothing to gain and so much to lose.

Well, as much as it galls me to say this, the environmental mullahs have pretty much won their war for Northforkistan.

Most of the roads are closed, after an orgy of lawsuit-driven berming and gating climaxed with the “trade” of permanent Road 316 closure for the northside expansion of Big Mountain. Thousands of locals lost their favorite recreation and have since moved on.

The forests of the North Fork are a complete wreck. Timber harvest was brought to a standstill, again by litigation. We were rewarded with a nirvana of huge fires – Wedge, Roberts, Moose – that toasted thousands upon thousands of acres of habitat and millions upon millions of feet of valuable timber during a hot market. But because that timber was in the holy “Crown of the Continent,” Greens made sure it was left to rot – no jobs, no money to pay back the fire fighting or even consider rehabilitation. Game over.

And then there is natural gas. Gas rights in the North Fork were leased by the Flathead National Forest in the late 1980s and immediately tied up in court. If I remember right, the lease payments were suspended, yet the lessees chose to keep them rather than go away. Why?

The overthrust geology of the main Rocky Mountain spine underlies the North Fork. The Canadians produce gas on their side of the border. Test wells got drilled on North Fork private land. Lips remain zipped to this day about the results – in contrast to Anschutz’s declaration that their Blackfeet Reservation efforts produced little.

Critically, before America’s economy tanked, Northwestern wanted to lay some supplementary “loop” gas piping over Marias Pass, as our existing (and only) gas supply line was, and remains, close to capacity. But widening the existing right of way would affect some “roadless” Forest Service land – “roadless” meaning it is qualified for possible Congressional designation as a wilderness area. The pipe still isn’t in.

The companies that leased those North Fork rights weren’t stupid. Today, they are smart enough to understand that if incoming pipelines can’t be built, pipelines running the other way have no chance – no matter how much gas there is, no matter how responsibly and discreetly it is extracted, and how much it is worth to them – and to us here in the Flathead.

Add in how new hydraulic fracturing methods have completely flipped the petroleum world upside down. Now, with boodles more gas available elsewhere, places possibly less pristine, but certainly far less politically toxic, is there any rational reason to keep seeking permission to drill in Northforkistan?

So, while some think and hope that Daines’ bipartisan comity indicates a conversion, the fact remains that Congressman Steve Daines is one of 435 little fish in the U.S. House cesspool.

Nobody should expect Daines to waste his limited political ammo on a lost cause like Northforkistan. There are too many other causes his supporters find much more worthy, and more important, winnable.

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