‘Historic’ Montana Lands Package to Advance

North Fork Watershed Protection Act, new wilderness areas in Bob Marshall expected to pass House, Senate

By Tristan Scott

Montana’s congressional leaders on Wednesday introduced a suite of major public lands bills they expect Congress to approve, including the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would designate new sections of wilderness in the state for the first time in three decades.

The Montana bills are part of a broad collection of national bills and land proposals attached to a must-pass defense reauthorization bill, and the entire congressional delegation expressed confidence that both the House and Senate would take quick action to approve the package.

Current and former members of Montana’s congressional delegation have been working on some of the bills for months and even decades, and recently ramped up negotiations in an effort to spur the legislation forward before the lame-duck session expires.

Democrat U.S. Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who last month was elected to replace Walsh in the Senate, held a joint news conference in which they hailed the lands package as historic for its importance to Montana.

“The entire Montana delegation has come to an agreement on a lands package that will not only preserve some of our most treasured places, but it will empower the Montana economy,” Tester told reporters. “This is the type of bipartisan collaboration our constituents want from us and deserve from us.”

The bills include the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which bans future mining and drilling on 430,000 acres in the North Fork of the Flathead River, an area that tracks along the western edge of Glacier National Park, and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, designates 208,000 acres nearby as a conservation management area, and releases 14,000 acres of wilderness study areas for a new assessment of the potential for oil and gas extraction.

“The North Fork Watershed Protection Act represents a common sense, locally-driven effort that Montanans have worked toward together for decades,the ” said Daines, who successfully ushered the measure through the U.S. House earlier this year. “I’m proud to be a part of the collaborative effort to get this bipartisan bill fully across the finish line.”

Other Montana bills include: The Northern Cheyenne Lands Act, which returns mineral rights to the tribe covering 5,000 acres of coal deposits within the reservation; the Grazing Improvement Act, which extends the life of grazing permits on federal lands from 10 to 20 years; and a measure that removes a law that prevents irrigation districts, including four in Montana, from developing hydropower on Bureau of Reclamation canals and ditches.

All three delegates said the bipartisan cooperation and compromise that went into crafting the package is an example of how Congress should work.

“The significance of this cannot be understated. None of us came to Washington to sit on our hands and obstruct,” Tester said. “We came to make this country a better place.”

The North Fork legislation received an outpouring of local support as groups have come together for decades urging its passage.

“This legislation is tremendously important,” said Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association. “By ensuring that the North Fork valley is not industrialized, this bill safeguards both our wild inheritance and our region’s economy. It guarantees a future for traditional timber harvest, and it defends our outdoor heritage of hunting and fishing. It protects private property rights, and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a single dime. It also has the support of hunters and anglers, of cities and counties, Chambers of Commerce, the region’s largest employers, even the giants of America’s energy sector such as Conoco Phillips and Chevron. This is exactly the sort of balance and vision we need from our leadership.”

The bill has roots that reach back nearly 40 years, when the first Canadian coal mining proposals sought to tear down peaks in Glacier National Park’s headwaters.

In 2010, Montana reached an historic accord with British Columbia’s leadership, pledging to together protect the wild and scenic region. The following year, Canadian lawmakers upheld their portion of the agreement by safeguarding lands north of the border.

“This is the kind of reciprocal action that’s been needed on the US side of the border for years,” said Chas Cartwright, former superintendent of Glacier National Park and current chair of the Flathead Basin Commission. “Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake and the overall Crown of the Continent will directly and significantly benefit from this legislation.”

Former Montana Senator Max Baucus introduced similar legislation for the U.S. Congress, but was named ambassador to China before it was implemented. His bill, since adopted by Tester, Daines and Walsh would limit future leasing on federal North Fork lands, and is now under consideration for final approval before year’s end.

Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, called the prospect of passing the protective legislation this year “great news for Glacier National Park, Montana, and Kalispell’s regional tourism economy. We commend Sens. Tester and Walsh and Congressman Daines for crafting a bipartisan solution to protecting the Glacier Park-adjacent North Fork area for the benefit of millions of visitors, businesses, and jobs for our state.”

The region’s timber interests were likewise optimistic about the bipartisan nature of the legislation.

Paul McKenzie, Lands and Resource Manager for F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber, said he is “glad to see Sens. Tester and Walsh and Sen.-Elect Daines working together toward solutions for public lands issues that make sense for Montana. We encourage all of our elected officials to continue to seek innovative solutions through bipartisan cooperation that provides legislative certainty for both the management and protection of our public lands natural resources.”