How the North Fork Became Mired in Politics

Montana’s delegation exchanges barbs over campaign donations, blockage of North Fork Watershed Protection Act

By Tristan Scott

 When the state’s congressional leaders introduced the North Fork Watershed Protection Act last year, the measure to ban new energy development on 430,000 acres of wild and scenic river corridor near Glacier National Park stood out for its singular brand of bipartisan support.

The Montana-made bill gained near universal esteem, even at the height of partisanship, and was hailed by conservationists, oil tycoons and politicians alike as a commonsense piece of legislation – 80 percent of energy leases in the area have been voluntarily released, and it dovetails with an effort by British Columbia’s parliament to place similar protections north of the border, on the headwaters of the Flathead River.

Representing the first public lands bill in recent memory to garner the full support of Montana’s entire congressional delegation, it also provided a convenient platform for the state’s electorate to display the kind of esprit de corps that Washington lacks, a welcome departure from the gridlock that has stalled Congress, and a rare display of bipartisan teamwork greeted by much local fanfare.

Montana’s representatives even appeared sincere about their commitment to the pristine North Fork Flathead River, while its dearth of opposition and glut of support made it politically innocuous.

Not only was it good legislation, it seemed it was good politics.

But just as the North Fork bill appeared poised to transcend the morass, it fell victim to the same political arrest that has come to typify Congress – a fanatical brand of doctrinarian politics from which the measure and its backers attempted to distance themselves.

Mired in election-year politicking, the measure now sits squarely at the center of a dispute between the two candidates for Montana’s U.S. Senate seat – U.S. Sen. John Walsh and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines – who have traded jabs over suspect campaign donations and cast allegations of back-channel deals to stall the bill in an effort to portray the other as incompetent.

Former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ successor by appointment, Walsh began advocating the North Fork bill with gusto as soon as he’d taken office, while Daines, also an early champion of the bill – so much so that he introduced his own version of the bill in the House – made waves by ushering the legislation through the Republican-led House.

But recently, Walsh criticized Daines for accepting $10,000 in campaign donations from U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, one of three senators who blocked the passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act in the Senate.

Both Walsh and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., have accused Daines of lobbying Toomey and the other senators, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, to block the bill’s passage.

“Congressman Daines is ready to accept political contributions from his Senate allies, but didn’t want to do the tough work of getting the bill passed,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokesperson for the Walsh campaign. “Leadership is doing what’s right even if it’s hard – and that includes standing up to members of your own party.”

On June 25, Walsh again took aim at Daines when he hosted a fundraising breakfast for Toomey, while Daines, who enjoyed a positive PR blitz after moving the bill through the House, criticized Walsh for his inability to do the same in the Senate.

Meanwhile, both campaigns have accused the other of turning a nonpartisan lands bill into a politically charged chess piece.

“Congressman Daines was eager to accept credit for supporting the North Fork in the House but our work can’t stop there,” Walsh said. “If Congressman Daines truly believes this is the right thing to do, he can join us in calling on his friends to stop blocking this vote.”

Alee Lockman with the Daines campaign said Walsh is trying to turn the bill into a political chip, and urged Montana’s senators to lobby Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to put the bill forward for a vote on the Senate floor, just as House leadership did.

“It is frustrating that we now have so much political rhetoric surrounding the North Fork, because it’s becoming uncertain whether we can get it done,” Lockman said. “We are not trying to make political hay and we are working behind the scenes to make sure this important legislation is passed. The only people who are trying to make a political issue out of this is the Walsh campaign, and that is very frustrating for us.”

But Tester said there’s more going on behind the scenes, and said Daines could clear the way for the bill’s passage if he had the inclination.

“For him to say that is patently dishonest,” Tester said. “He got it through the House and now he’s killed it in the Senate. It’s his folks who have stopped the bill.”

The bill, or variations of it, has a long and textured history, but only recently has its political polarization become so palpable.

Prior to his departure from Congress to become the United States’ ambassador to China, Baucus had worked for more than 30 years to protect the North Fork, which tracks along the western edge of Glacier National Park, sits adjacent to a major coal-mining region along British Columbia’s Elk River, and is home to a suite of wildlife.

He had introduced several versions of the North Fork bill prior to the last Legislative session, but they never gained enough traction in the Senate. But last summer, with Baucus championing the measure as his swan song, it won rare bipartisan support in the divided Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the outgoing senator commenced a full-court press to pass the bill in his final months.

“In this particular Congress, it’s always a big deal when a bill gets reported out unanimously,” National Parks Conservation Association legislative analyst Elise Ligouri said optimistically after the committee hearing. “We think it should be considered for a floor vote in the very near future.”

The political nuances begin to get dense, but a colloquial, geographically narrow bill like the North Fork Act is unlikely to gain enough ground for a vote on the Senate floor, a time-consuming process reserved for sprawling legislation, omnibus bills and highly controversial measures that require lengthy debate.

Instead, Tester and Baucus introduced it for a voice vote, which requires unanimous consent – a routine mechanism meant to fast-track measures that are unlikely to meet opposition. Because a voice vote requires unanimous consent via a live Senate hotline, however, the three conservative holdouts were able to block the bill – Toomey objected on behalf of Cruz and Coburn, neither of who were present in the chamber.

Meanwhile, Coburn wrote a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell outlining what has become a familiar conservative stance on federal land bills – that the federal government should divest control of some public lands and turn them over to the states – while Walsh introduced legislation that would impose new rules preventing Congress from attempting to sell off public lands.

Both Tester and Walsh expressed frustration over the political maneuvering of the conservative senators, who remain entrenched in their opposition to the bill.

“Once again politics is trumping good policy. The North Fork bill is a Montana-made bill. It has wide bipartisan support. I would challenge these three senators to find the North Fork on a map, and here they are holding this bill up,” Tester said.

Walsh and Tester also criticized Daines for taking a victory lap after passing the bill through the House, and then criticizing the senators for failing to whip votes in the Senate.

But Robert Saldin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana, said Daines deserves credit for passing the bill through the Republican-led House, which he characterized as a “heavy lift.” He said Tester and Walsh should be pressuring the Senate leadership to bring the measure for a Senate vote.

“My take is that Daines did his part. He got it passed in the House of Representatives where he currently serves, passed through the Republican leadership, and they did it. Now it’s up to the Senate to act,” Saldin said. “If that thing came to a vote in the Senate it would sail through. It just needs to be brought up in a normal vote.”

Tester countered that Daines’ proven relationship and clout with Toomey, Cruz and Coburn indicates that he could influence their votes.

“If you’re having a fundraiser with the people that are stopping your legislation and you really want to get that legislation passed, it will move forward if you talk to them. You do not have a fundraiser for Pat Toomey unless you’re getting something out of it,” Tester said.

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