Baucus Addresses Mining Company’s Conservation Purchase Near North Fork

By Beacon Staff

Last week Canadian mining giant Teck Resources announced its plans to purchase nearly 28 square miles of private land north of Glacier National Park to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Click here to read the Beacon’s original story.

The deal surfaced as Montana’s representatives on Capitol Hill keep pushing for federal legislation formally protecting the Flathead watershed, primarily the North Fork Flathead River basin.

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. The B.C. government in 2011 passed the Flathead Watershed Conservation Act, which bans mining and oil and gas activity in the B.C. Flathead.

Actual legislation supporting the 2010 agreement has yet to emerge on the U.S. side though.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who has focused on protecting the North Fork since the 1970s, has said one of his final priorities before retiring is passing the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. Baucus and fellow senator Jon Tester introduced the bill yet again in February. The bill has stalled twice in the past, but the future appears bright because of recent bipartisan support from Montana Rep. Steve Daines, who introduced nearly identical legislation in June. Earlier this month, Daines’ bill received its first hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives and remains in the early stages of committee reviews.

Baucus’ office released a statement earlier this week following Teck’s announcement.

“I’ve spent the last 40 years fighting to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River because our outdoor heritage and jobs for the long haul depend on it,” Baucus said. “When energy companies see the value of stewardship and conservation, it’s a win-win. Teck Resources’ purchase of critical lands in the Flathead and Elk River watersheds is a step in the right direction, and even more must be done to ensure progress in protecting the Elk and Kootenai Rivers for years to come.”

A coalition of conservation groups praised Teck’s decision to permanently protect a region identified as integral to the Flathead and Elk watersheds, and hope that it could spur action by the U.S. government.

“Teck is making a tremendous investment in the stewardship of our headwaters, and this purchase absolutely helps to protect important places such as Glacier Park and Flathead Lake,” said Michael Jamison from the National Parks Conservation Association. “And it certainly underscores the need for us to finish the job on our side of the border, with passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.”

Jamison added that the bill has the support of many energy giants, including Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

“Montana shook hands in 2010 on a good-faith deal with British Columbia, agreeing to protect the transboundary Flathead,” he said. “Since then, provincial lawmakers have taken action, as has our state government and the Canadian federal government. Now, even the coal mining company has stepped up. But despite strong bipartisan support from Montana’s entire federal delegation, Congress has yet to hold up its end of the bargain.”

?Teck has agreed to pay $19 million to acquire a total of 17,667 acres in three separate blocks of land near Fernie. The sites are located in the heart of the Elk and Flathead river valleys and considered critical habitat for bull trout, westslope cutthroat, grizzly bears, lynx and bird species.

One tract, a town site surveyed in the 1920s, is near the headwaters of the Flathead within 30 miles of the Montana border. It encompasses 2,451 acres, or 3.82 square miles, and sits roughly 17 miles southeast of Sparwood, a mining town on the banks of the Elk River north of Fernie off Highway 3.

The site has gained attention in recent years as potential recreational real estate. Tembec and the Nature Conservancy of Canada reached a moratorium agreement to prohibit residential development at the town site, but the deal is set to expire in 2014.

“The Flathead Townsite is critically important habitat, particularly for fisheries values,” John Bergenske, executive director of Wildsight, a regional conservation group based in Kimberley, BC., told the Beacon.

Bergenske said the drainage is a major spawning ground for bull trout that live within the Flathead watershed, which drains through southeastern British Columbia into Northwest Montana’s North Fork Flathead River.

Another section of land being acquired is six miles east of Sparwood, known as Alexander Creek, and encompasses 7,655 acres, or 11.94 square miles along the B.C.-Alberta border. It is considered a primary corridor for wildlife in the Rocky Mountains.

The third parcel, known as Grave Prairie, is 7,558 acres, or 11.79 square miles, and hugs the eastern riverbank of the Elk River roughly five miles north of Sparwood.

RELATED: Locals Support North Fork Bill at Capitol

RELATED: 40 Years on the North Fork

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.