Pass the North Fork Watershed Protection Act

By Beacon Staff

Ever since the Great Northern Railway laid tracks through Whitefish in 1904, tourism has been the backbone of our local economy, creating good paying jobs and sustaining thousands of families over the years to put their kids through college, start small businesses, buy a home and retire in one of the most beautiful small towns in America.

Hard-working Americans from all over the country come to Whitefish year round. They spend their hard-earned money locally to buy hotel rooms, fill up gas tanks, eat out and support our local businesses – all because they are called to our amazing wild and scenic areas, access to public lands and clean water, and special places such as Glacier National Park and the fresh powder of Whitefish Mountain Resort. In 2013 alone, Whitefish welcomed over 558,000 out-of-state visitors; 65,000 traveled to Whitefish on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Resort tax and bed tax revenues in Whitefish increased 10 percent and 16 percent respectively that same year.

In early April, three senators from Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania blocked bipartisan legislation supported by Montana Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh and Rep. Steve Daines – Montana’s full congressional delegation – to permanently protect the North Fork Flathead River from future energy development. The bill even has backing from major energy companies, like ConocoPhillips and local businesses, including F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company. But it has stalled for no apparent reason. In a recent poll in the Missoulian, 73 percent said they support permanent protection of the North Fork Flathead River.

If passed, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act would withdraw federal land from energy development in the north and middle fork watersheds just west of Glacier National Park while allowing traditional uses on which our economy has historically depended, such as logging, hunting, livestock grazing and gravel mining. It also coincides with a 2010 agreement with the Canadian Province of British Columbia and Montana to protect the trans-boundary Flathead River from energy development.

In order for a bill to even reach Congress, community leaders hold numerous public meetings, study the scientific, social and economic impacts of a new designation, spend hours with lawyers and legislators to draft the legislation, and work to generate broad public support within the surrounding communities as well as with local, state and national leaders. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act has met every benchmark of a local stakeholder-driven law. Clearly, this is a commonsense bill that deserves a vote in the Senate.

Let our congressional delegation know you support their collective efforts to end the partisan gridlock by passing the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.

John Muhlfeld is the mayor of Whitefish.