President Signs Montana Lands Package into Law

In signing National Defense Authorization Act, Obama approves North Fork protection, new wilderness on Rocky Mountain Front

By Tristan Scott

President Barack Obama on Friday officially signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which contains a massive lands package that adds new wilderness in Montana for the first time in 31 years and furnishes permanent protection from energy development on the North Fork of the Flathead River.

The collection of 70 national public land management bills is the largest since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, and the state’s entire Congressional delegation worked to attach eight Montana bills.

They include the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which bans future mining and drilling on 383,267 acres in the North Fork, 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. It also allows the reassessment of 15,000 additional acres of wilderness study areas.

Conservation groups in British Columbia hailed the passage of the North Fork bill as a milestone for the two countries.

“Passing this legislation represents a truly significant accomplishment for the BC–Montana relationship, and for the health of our shared Waterton-Glacier Peace Park region,” said John Bergenske, conservation director of B.C. environmental group Wildsight. “It was vitally important for the U.S. government to pass this legislation to balance similar legislation passed in BC in 2011 that banned mining and energy development in the transnational Flathead watershed.”

“The Flathead is the last unsettled river valley in all of Canada,” said Peter Wood, terrestrial campaigns director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – BC Chapter. “In the U.S., it’s widely regarded as the wildest valley remaining in the Lower 48. It has an immense value to people in both countries, and we sincerely commend the political leadership of both Montana and B.C. for acting on the wishes of their citizens, and honoring the transboundary agreement.”

Together, the bills create about 250,000 acres of new wilderness designation and protection of other lands from energy development in Montana.

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.

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh worked alongside Republican U.S. Rep. and Sen.-elect Steve Daines to hammer out the details of the Montana bills in a brand of compromise that has been absent in the halls of Congress.

Tester said the collective decision to attach the package to the defense bill, which allows $585 billion in discretionary spending and $63.7 billion in overseas operations, was the most practical way to move the local bills forward, even though it required compromise.

“This is compromise. This is how you come to a deal,” Tester said. “You don’t get everything you want. You give a little and you get a lot. In the end, this is something to celebrate.”

Daines applauded passage of the bill, saying the lands and natural resources bills are a prime example of bipartisan support.

“The resources, lands and defense provisions in the NDAA represent years of locally-driven, bipartisan work in Montana – and more importantly, it represents how much we can get done when folks come together and find common ground,” Daines stated. “This bill ensures that Montana will continue to play a key role in maintaining a strong national defense. It also protects some of our state’s greatest treasures, increases Montanans’ access to our public lands and expands the responsible development of our energy. I’m glad to see President Obama sign this bill into law today.”

The official passage of the bills comes hours after Tester and Walsh celebrated the likely success of the public lands package on the western edge of Glacier National Park.

“On the same day we stood at the foot of the Rockies to celebrate the preservation of the North Fork, the President made it official. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the North Fork Protection Act and the other Montana lands bills in this historic legislation will preserve Montana’s special places and outdoor traditions while strengthening our economy,” Tester said. “Today is a victory for Montana and bipartisanship.”

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