BIG CREEK – Chipping away at the sun baked dirt with a Pulaski axe, a hard-hat clad Max Baucus graded out the slope of a hiking trail high above the North Fork Flathead River near the Big Creek tributary, buffing out a ribbon of single track that tops out on Glacier View Mountain but hasn’t been maintained since fire scoured the hillside in 2001.
In many ways, it was another day at the office for Montana’s senior senator, but instead of walking the halls of Congress he climbed steep switchbacks, chatting with and sweating alongside young members of a Montana Conservation Corps trail crew instead of running the Senate Finance Committee.
Baucus has been embarking on these “work days” for 20 years (the most recent outing was his 96th) affording the Democrat an opportunity to leave the confines of Washington, D.C. and pitch in at aluminum plants or on road construction projects across Montana, commixing with “the real workers” of the state.
But his efforts to protect the North Fork Flathead River go back even further, to the beginning of his political career in 1974 when he first joined the House of Representatives. The workday on Aug. 8 took on added significance for Baucus, whose 40-year effort to protect the North Fork watershed is poised to come full circle before his term ends in 2015.
It was during his freshman year in Congress that Baucus first heard of a proposed coal mine in the Cabin Creek drainage of the North Fork in British Columbia.
“It made no sense and I decided I was going to do everything I could to make sure it never happened,” Baucus said of the development.
Two years later, he passed legislation designating the North Fork a National Wild and Scenic River, furnishing protections on the corridor in Montana but not British Columbia. The International Joint Commission later ruled that the proposed open pit coal mine would violate the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
Since those efforts, the pieces have continued to fall into place, with Baucus never backing off the issue.
“You have to stay forever vigilant. You have to stick with it,” he said. “For 40 years I’ve been sticking with it. I cut my teeth protecting the Flathead, and I ran into some strong opposition along the way.”
In 2008, BP announced that it would drop plans to obtain drilling rights for coalbed methane extraction in the river’s headwaters. In 2010, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell signed a memorandum of understanding that prohibited new energy development on the North Fork, agreeing to bar mining, oil and gas development and coalbed gas extraction in B.C.’s portion of the Flathead Valley.
For the past three years, Baucus has been trying to pass the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which would ban future mineral development in the river corridor. Twice the bill has stalled, but with broad bipartisan support – U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has introduced a companion bill to the Senate measure – Baucus is confident it will pass before he retires in 2015.
“Because Steve Daines supports it, that sends a strong signals to Republican lawmakers who might otherwise be reluctant,” Baucus said.
In 2010, several oil and gas companies voluntarily withdrew their leases in the North Fork, including ConocoPhilips, Chevron, and a subsidiary of Exxon/Mobile, accounting for about 80 percent of existing leases.
In June, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted on Sen. Max Baucus’ North Fork Watershed Protection Act at its markup session, and the bill dovetails with the memorandum of understanding between Montana and B.C.
Taking a break to nosh a turkey sandwich, Baucus said he was optimistic the bill, which is brief and straight forward, would be bundled with another major piece of legislation, protecting in perpetuity the drainage that runs along the border of Glacier National Park and sits adjacent to a major coal-mining region along British Columbia’s Elk River.
After announcing his retirement in April, Baucus promised a full court press to protect some of Montana’s most pristine places, including the North Fork and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would protect wilderness, ranching and recreation opportunities in the mountain range between Augusta and Dupuyer.
Baucus drew parallels between the service work of the Conservation Corps crew members, his own public service and the conservation efforts of Montana outdoors enthusiasts.
“One of the things that young people learn in the Conservation Corps is persistence and hard work and developing important life skills,” he said. “We are an outdoor state. We backpack, hike, fish, float, hunt. It’s who we are. And you’re helping to preserve that.”
Rob Davies, the Hungry Horse and Glacier View District Ranger for the Flathead National Forest, said the Montana Conservation Corps projects have filled a massive void since funding declines brought on by sequestration.
“All the volunteer labor that we’re not paying for accounts for 75 percent of our trail work,” he said.
Joni Packard, regional volunteer coordinator for the Flathead National Forest’s northern region, said the MCC conducts about 100 projects in Montana’s national forests annually.
“We have MCC crews working throughout the region and they are just vital partners,” she said.
Climbing to a higher switchback, and before resuming the rhythmic work of hacking into the mountainside alongside the dozen members of the Montana Conservation Corps trail crew, the U.S. senator checked his GPS wristwatch for some beta on the hike.
“Our elevation right now is 4,258 feet,” Baucus told the crew.
As the crew picked its way up the mountain, the North Fork corridor sprawled out below them, Baucus thought of the progress Montana has made protecting the river, and the work he has yet to accomplish before retiring at the end of his term.
After 96 workdays and nearly four decades in office – Baucus is the third longest-serving of current U.S. senators – he said he’s never harbored any doubt about his job.
“I just work here,” he said.