News & Features

‘Historic’ Montana Lands Package Nears Finish Line

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

A raft of public lands measures is headed for a vote in the U.S. Senate this week following a last-minute series of negotiations between the state’s congressional leaders, who together marshaled a bundle of Montana bills into the historic package.

The product of 11th-hour arbitrations that nearly collapsed in the waning moments of Dec. 2, the sprawling lands package was rolled into the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass piece of legislation that has lawmakers optimistic it would sail through the Senate with the lands bills intact.

The U.S. House easily passed the defense spending bill on Dec. 4.

In a significant conservation move for Northwest Montana, the package contains the North Fork Watershed Preservation Act, which has been in the works for nearly 40 years and removes 430,000 acres of the North Fork of the Flathead River from energy mining, as well as the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would add about 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, along with 208,000 acres of conservation management areas and a new noxious weed control program – whilereleasing or opening for energy exploration about 29,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in eastern Montana.

If passed, the bills would designate new sections of wilderness in the state for the first time in three decades, while releasing other Wilderness Study Areas that have remained in limbo for decades.

The give-and-take nature of the lands package was essential to the three congressional leaders striking a deal they could agree on.

“Two days ago we thought this was dead,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Dec. 3, describing how fragile the negotiations had become. “But we finally came up with something that we could all wrap our arms around and that is a huge feat. This is a win for Montana.”

The entire congressional delegation expressed confidence that the 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. Sens. Tester and John Walsh and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who last month was elected to replace Walsh in the Senate, all 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 in a joint press conference Dec. 3. “This is the type of bipartisan collaboration our constituents want from us and deserve from us.”

The North Fork Watershed Protection Act bans future mining and drilling on a wild and scenic river corridor that tracks along the western edge of Glacier National Park. Former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus worked for nearly 40 years to protect the area, but the bill has been beset by challenges for years.

Daines demonstrated a rare strain of bipartisan support for the North Fork bill early on, making it the first public lands bill in recent memory to garner the full support of Montana’s entire congressional delegation. It has also provided a 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.

“The North Fork Watershed Protection Act represents a common sense, locally-driven effort that Montanans have worked toward together for decades,” 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.”

The North Fork bill dovetails with British Columbia legislation giving the Canadian portion of the river similar protection.

In 2010, Montana reached an historic accord with British Columbia’s leadership, pledging together to 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 U.S. 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.”

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld noted its significance to local communities.

“The city is thrilled and I applaud Montana’s delegation for working hard to get this important piece of legislation approved. Whitefish derives a portion of its municipal water supply from federal lands in Haskill Basin,” Muhlfeld said. “Passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act means permanent protection of our community’s water supply and one of the crown jewels of our nation, the North Fork Flathead River.”

Other Montana bills included in the package are: 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, even as they clashed on many of the issues contained within the package.

“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.

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.”

Still, others were rankled that the deal cut between Daines, Tester and Walsh included so many compromises, particularly the decision to downgrade 29,000 acres of eastern Montana wilderness study areas, marking a nearly unprecedented release of wilderness study areas, in exchange for Daines’ supporting the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

“Yes, the North Fork Flathead River and Rocky Mountain Front deserve protection from oil, gas and minerals mining – but not at the expense of removing protection from Wilderness Study Areas in eastern Montana near Otter Creek and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge to benefit the coal, oil and gas industries,” said Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition. “Nor should these bills be packaged in the dead of night with provisions to give 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corporation for logging, nor granting National Forest land in Arizona to a foreign-owned mining company, among other horrible provisions.”

Hammer, who is part of a national coalition of 47 organizations calling on the Senate to remove the lands package from the defense bill, said the package would ultimately allow more logging, grazing, mining and private use of public land in the West.

But Montana’s congressional leaders said balancing land protection and natural resource opportunities was critical in sealing the deal.

Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was not included in the package, even though it previously earned bipartisan committee passage in the Senate. Tester and Republican lawmakers, including Daines, couldn’t agree on the bill, and decided to omit it rather than shatter weeks of negotiations.

And Daines finally voiced support for the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act after remaining tight-lipped about his stance on the measure in exchange for the removal of two parcels of Bureau of Land Management wilderness study area and the reassessment of two more.

The 14,000 acres of released lands are at Buffalo Creek just north of the Wyoming border near Broadus and Zook Creek just south of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

The parcels to be reassessed for oil and gas potential are about 15,000 acres at Musselshell Breaks and Bridge Coulee, both just south of the U-L Bend portion of the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. Those reviews must take place within five years, and Congress must reconsider their wilderness study area status if energy potential is discovered.

Daines had requested that additional Wilderness Study Areas be released, but allowed them to remain so that the parties could broker a final deal.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted but it’s not the end of the world. I think it’s very unfortunate that we weren’t able to get my Forest Jobs and Recreation Act passed,” Tester said. “But together we got a lot of good done for Montana.”

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