Water Quality Watchdogs

Facing dramatic budget cuts, the Flathead Basin Commission’s future hangs in limbo at a time when the costs have never been greater

By Tristan Scott
Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, speaks with Randy Arnold, with the Montana Aquatic Invasive Species Incident Command Team in Polson on Feb. 2, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Long before Montana’s state government created the Flathead Basin Commission to safeguard its waters, sprawling coal deposits lay hidden in the wilds of British Columbia, untapped and untouched. They ran in seams beneath a skinny track of wilderness just north of Glacier National Park, at a site overlooking the Canadian Flathead River, which spills south, crosses the international boundary and becomes the North Fork Flathead River.

Against all odds, that coal remains hidden today — still entombed in the strata, thanks in large part to the region’s foremost water-quality watchdog group. But even as the transboundary Flathead enjoys permanent protections from future mining or drilling, the fate of the legislatively established Flathead Basin Commission hangs in limbo due to looming budget cuts that threaten to render the group inoperable.

On the heels of slumping state revenue and skyrocketing firefighting costs, Gov. Steve Bullock is directing most state agency directors to trim 10 percent from their budgets. To achieve that goal, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs has recommended cutting the Flathead Basin Commission’s entire budget for fiscal year 2018, which totaled $148,932, as well as its budget for fiscal year 2019.

Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission and the group’s only paid full-time staff member, said depleting the group’s funding not only delivers a devastating blow, but it makes little sense, hardly alleviating the state’s crushing $227 million budget shortfall.

“The reality is these cuts leave us with nothing,” Miske said. “And they hardly put a dent in the overall budget deficit. You have to ask yourself what these cuts are all about and why we’re being asked to cut 100 percent of our budget rather than 10 percent.”

Emphasizing that the austerity cuts are only recommendations at this point, and that the Montana Legislature still has an opportunity to act, Tubbs conceded that some significant agency cuts are inevitable. Still, he defended the proposed cuts to the Flathead Basin Commission, an administrative partner to the DNRC, and said the governor’s request prompted him to take a hard look at which of his agency’s programs are essential and ancillary, and which are expendable.

“I very much appreciate the work of the Flathead Basin Commission, but they are not considered an essential function of the DNRC,” Tubbs said in an interview with the Beacon, adding that the group could raise operational funds independently, through philanthropic donations, grants and partnerships.

“The Flathead Basin Commission is a unique component of this agency,” Tubbs said. “Frankly, the Flathead Basin Commission was set up to stop coal mining in British Columbia on the North Fork Flathead River, and it was a huge accomplishment. That was a very important success for conserving the Flathead River Basin. But ultimately, I’m prepared to stand up in front of the legislative finance committee and explain why exactly I picked on the Flathead Basin Commission.”

The North Fork Flathead River runs along the western boundary of Glacier National Park. Beacon File Photo

Established by the Montana Legislature in 1983, the Flathead Basin Commission has stood sentry over the region’s prized local waters for nearly 35 years, safeguarding water quality in the Flathead by successfully engaging the B.C. government to consider the effects of downstream pollution and agree to a memorandum of understanding, while persuading the U.S. State Department to take action following recommendations by the International Joint Commission, which is charged with resolving transboundary water disputes.

The six-member IJC implements the 1909 Boundary Waters treaty between the United States and Canada, which states, in part, that neither country’s water pollution shall impact the health and property of the other.

For 40 years now, the United States and Canada have been at odds over energy development north of Glacier, with British Columbia’s government eager to pursue coal and coalbed methane production, and Montana worried about the effects of downstream pollutants on its world-class watershed.

In the early 1980s, IJC Commissioner Rich Moy was serving as the top boss at the Montana DNRC’s water bureau when he learned about the coal hidden north of Glacier, and Canada’s plans to open the mountains and sift it out.

At that time, a Canadian coal company wanted to build open-strip mines and produce more than 2 million tons of coal per year for 20 years. The Cabin Creek mines were to straddle the headwaters of the North Fork Flathead River, which forms the western boundary of Glacier Park and flows finally into Flathead Lake.

People south of the border, like Moy, worried that Canada would gain the economic benefits, and Montana would receive the downstream pollution.

“We had nothing to gain and everything to lose,” Moy said.

It was of special concern because the North Fork Flathead River Valley is arguably the most protected place in the nation. It enjoys the strongest water-quality protections, the toughest air-quality protections, wilderness protections, endangered species protections, and national park protections. It’s blanketed by a Wild and Scenic River designation, a Biosphere Reserve designation and a World Heritage Site designation.

Those facts weren’t lost on newly elected Sen. Max Baucus, who took up the cause in earnest and fanned the flames of opposition while the dispute escalated. Baucus authorized a five-year Flathead Basin Environmental Impact Study, and the commission was formed to collect evidence and data that the mine would have deleterious effects to Montana’s waters. Finally, the U.S. State Department and Canada’s Foreign Ministry agreed to refer the proposal to the IJC, which ruled that the mine would harm Montana’s fisheries.

Former U.S. Senator Max Baucus. Beacon File Photo

“For most people, there are maybe three or four major issues that you are compelled to tackle and solve with unbridled tenacity,” Baucus said in a recent interview. “For me, it was the North Fork, and we couldn’t have done it without the Flathead Basin Commission.”

At the height of those transboundary tensions, Moy served as the head of the Flathead Basin Commission, and said the group played a pivotal role in the negotiations playing out on the backcountry battlefield. Today, Moy said he cites the group as a model prototype for international watershed boards across the border.

“Without the Flathead Basin Commission, mining projects would certainly have been developed in the B.C. Flathead, and the Flathead River and Flathead Lake would have experienced toxic impacts,” Moy said. “I know John [Tubbs] and other state directors are having a very difficult job trying to balance the budget without additional tax revenue. But I am very disappointed that John is proposing to cut funding for the Flathead Basin Commission and its executive director’s position.”

And while Tubbs says the Commission’s role was fulfilled after it helped resolve the long years of deadlock with B.C., advocates of the commission say another pressing threat is knocking at the basin’s door — aquatic invasive species.

Both locally and statewide, efforts to reduce the risk of aquatic invasive species spreading through Montana’s water bodies have been stepped up in response to the positive detection last fall of invasive mussel larvae east of the Continental Divide in Tiber Reservoir, as well as their suspected presence in Canyon Ferry Reservoir and the Missouri River near Townsend.

Facing the threat of invasive mussels infesting the headwaters of the Columbia River and the largest freshwater lake in the West, the state of Montana has at the urging of the Flathead Basin Commission taken steps to increase protective measures west of the Continental Divide.

“Efforts like those carried out by the Flathead Basin Commission are even more important now than they ever were in the past because there are so many more potential impacts threatening the Flathead,” Baucus said. “It’s a no-brainer that the importance of the commission is too great to have it compromised.”

The Flathead Basin Commission crafted a plan specifically for this region that includes a “pilot program” requiring all boats, whether from out of state or in state, to be inspected before entering a local body of water. The program would be similar to the one implemented by the Blackfeet Nation, which has a system that provides multi-day use stickers after an inspection. The program seeks to curtail “lake hopping,” or boats bouncing around in-state waters and potentially spreading invasive mussels, and its budget would directly fund five additional full-time inspection stations flanking the perimeter of Flathead Lake.

Without funding, stakeholders worry the pilot program will never get off the ground.

Tom McDonald, division manager of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Natural Resources Department, said the Flathead Basin Commission has been a critical partner in CSKT’s efforts to combat the threat of invasive mussels, and the pilot program made sense as a next step.

“They have been a really active partner with us over the recent years, especially with respect to aquatic invasive species,” McDonald said. “They have been the leader at the forefront of this threat and we owe them a great sense of gratitude. They have done their due diligence and they have earned our respect and appreciation.”

Chas Cartwright, a former superintendent of Glacier National Park and former chairman of the Flathead Basin Commission, said the group’s role shouldn’t be diminished solely because it achieved an environmental victory on the North Fork.

“The DNRC has made it clear that they believe the work of the Flathead Basin Commission is over, and I would argue that its role is more critical than ever before,” Cartwright said. “It is pretty perplexing when you look at the exponential return on investment that the commission has generated for the state, and now the state wants to wave goodbye. I can only hope the Legislature stands up and supports the commission.”

Moreover, Cartwright said the agency’s decision to defund the commission appears to be a form of political payback rooted in jurisdictional disputes he witnessed firsthand as chairman. Reducing the commission’s role to what amounts to a substance-less entity will have consequences in the Flathead River Basin that far outweigh the pressure on state resources, he said.

“Our standards have always been higher than the state’s when it comes to the Flathead Basin,” Cartwright said. “We are taking better care of it, and it is serious business when you start making nonsensical decisions to remove an entity that has been a leader in the region on environmental issues that are critical to protecting the Flathead. The state’s program ain’t cutting it. And while we aren’t perfect, we are the best chance of keeping these bad things out of the Flathead Basin.”

The Legislative Finance Committee will consider the proposed cuts on Oct. 4-5 before Bullock makes his final decision.

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