North Fork Watershed Protection Act Passes U.S. House

By Beacon Staff

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon passed the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, sending the bill to the Senate for approval.

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who sponsored the bill in the House, hailed the legislation and the historic vote. It is the first landscape protection act in nearly three decades to receive support from Montana’s entire delegation.

Democratic Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh have also supported the bill, a version of which was first introduced by former Sen. Max Baucus, whose retirement to become ambassador to China cast doubt on the bill’s future.

If passed, the public lands bill would furnish permanent protections on 430,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service parcels along the north and middle forks of the Flathead River, placing them off limits to hard-rock mining, mountaintop-removal coal mining, and oil and gas development.

Before retiring, Baucus said the bill was slated for a senate hotline, by which a bill is approved by unanimous consent. However, at the time Baucus said two holdouts remained.

It’s not clear if Walsh, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Baucus’ term, will have success in persuading his Senate colleagues, but he immediately voiced support of the House’s passage of the act.

Daines said the bill, which passed the House by voice vote and earlier this year passed out of the Natural Resources Committee by unanimous consent, represented a “common sense goal.”

“The North Fork Watershed Protection Act represents common sense resource management — the kind of common sense that Montanans understand and Washington needs more of,” Daines said in a statement. “We all support protecting this area for future generations — making this bill the first lands legislation supported by the entire Montana delegation in nearly 30 years. Passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act is a major step towards a common sense goal that Montanans have worked toward together for decades. It’s time we get this done.”

The bill is identical, both in name and content, to its companion bill in the Senate, the North Fork Watershed Protect Act, which Democratic U.S. Sens. Baucus and Jon Tester introduced in February.

Last month, Walsh joined Tester as a co-sponsor of the senate bill, and drafted a letter to his senate colleagues encouraging them to support it.

“The North Fork is among Montana’s greatest natural treasures and a vibrant part of our outdoor heritage and the countless jobs that rely on it. Today’s vote on the North Fork Watershed Protection Act brings us a step closer to preserving it for current and future generations,” he said. “However, until the Senate provides its approval, we will fall short of the decades-long effort to secure the North Fork.

This is the type of commonsense, bipartisan action Congress should be focused on and I urge all of my colleagues to vote in support of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.”

Proponents of the legislation say it reciprocates a 2010 transboundary agreement between Canada and the U.S. to ban new energy development on the Canadian Flathead, and would fulfill U.S. obligations to protect both sides of the Flathead River drainage from energy and mineral development.

National Parks Conservation Association program manager Michael Jamison noted the bill has support of both energy companies such as Conoco-Phillips and wilderness advocates around Glacier National Park. Passage of the bill would complete the United States’ share of the agreement to protect the area.

“In 2011, British Columbia’s lawmakers enacted similar legislation to protect Glacier Park’s Canadian headwaters, and those neighbors expect Montanans to do the same,” Jamison said in a statement.

“Rep. Daines has recognized this obligation, and has created an opportunity to uphold our end of that international bargain.”