Following their regular meeting on June 23, Flathead County commissioners met with U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who listened to concerns about the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact and the reopening of Glacier National Park and the Canadian border while giving his thoughts on the COVID-19 recovery.
“My position is that we need to have an agreement that settles the obligation with the tribe but also protects property rights,” Gianforte said about the CSKT compact and associated Montana Water Protection Act, which had a hearing in the U.S. Senate last week and is supported by both of the state’s senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester. “I won’t support anything that doesn’t do both of those things.”
Commissioners expressed concerns about off-reservation water rights encroaching on local residents. Gianforte, who is the Republican candidate for governor, responded that in-stream flow rights needed to be examined on a practical basis, noting that often when the details are reviewed, no rights are being taken away.
“It’s wickedly complex,” Gianforte said, noting that the legislation could be made better with amendments.
Gianforte also spoke to the commissioners about his attempts to reopen the Canadian border, citing a letter he sent to President Donald Trump on June 17. The letter touted the lower rates of COVID-19 infection in Montana and the bordering Canadian and the economic impact of the closure on northern Montana towns.
In addition to the northern border, Gianforte expressed concern about the limited access to Glacier National Park causing additional economic harm to Flathead County.
“I recognize how important Glacier Park is to the economy here,” he said. “As important as Glacier is to Flathead, Yellowstone is to Gallatin.”
Gianforte pointed to the differences between how states were handling reopening, relaying an anecdote he had recently heard of a Montanan driving through Jackson, Wyo., which looked like the “mall at Christmas.”
“Where I have influence, I’m pushing pretty hard [for reopening],” he said.
Commissioner Randy Brodehl asked Gianforte about unused federal money that had been allocated to Montana for COVID-19 recovery, stating that he was concerned the state would keep the money instead of returning it to the federal government. The commissioners noted that the county was having difficulty coming up with direct pandemic-related costs to use it for, and requested that Gianforte push for an audit of Montana’s allocated funding.
“I don’t want to keep being fed money; we do run a very conservative county here,” Commissioner Phil Mitchell said. “We don’t want the money if we don’t need it.”
Gianforte said a bipartisan group was urging the president to relax the direct cost limitation attached to the funds.
“If there are costs necessary to help us deal with mental health issues as people are sequestered in their homes, it’s not a direct cost but it’s not unrelated,” he said. “I’ve been pushing the administration and Congress to relax those rules to give the states more flexibility to help the counties.”
The congressman also noted that the Flathead Valley real estate market was booming, which prompted concerns about rapid growth from the commissioners.
“I have a solution,” Gianforte said. “We’ve been exporting Montanans for decades … How about we invite all the Montanans back home. They were born here, raised here, and they’ll bring Montana values back.”