For all its remoteness, its small population and its tiny village capital of Polebridge, the North Fork Flathead River drainage has recently been the center of a lot of attention.
And it will continue to be, with Congress currently considering legislation tied directly to the drainage and with Flathead National Forest officials embarking on planning efforts that will affect federal lands west of Glacier National Park.
Just around the corner, on Oct. 3, a U.S. House committee will hold a hearing on legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called the North Fork Protection Act.
Daines’ legislation closely mirrors a bill backed by Montana Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. That legislation is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
Because the partner bills are simple, targeted and supported by the state’s congressional delegation — and noncontroversial so far — there is optimism they will become law within the next year.
“It’s the first time in 30 years we’ve had bipartisan and bicameral [natural resource] legislation coming out of Montana,” said Michael Jamison, Crown of the Continent program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Assuming that other lawmakers don’t decide to wade into Montana land-use planning, I’m optimistic we can get there.”
While the legislation may have a title that seems ominous to some, there are reasons it hasn’t raised hackles.
Both the House and Senate version basically withdraw federal lands in the North Fork from future leasing for mining and drilling. They do not affect private property, logging, state lands or existing leases that people have.
But the legislation is also regarded by many as being an important follow-up to actions taken to prevent mining and oil and gas development on the British Columbia side of the North Fork drainage.
In 2010, the British Columbia premier prohibited those activities in the Canadian North Fork, and the following year formal legislation banned mining and drilling on provincial lands.
It was regarded as an enormous turn of events in Montana, particularly in the Flathead Basin, where there had been loud and widespread opposition to mining in the Canadian North Fork dating back to the mid-1980s. Multiple mining projects were turned back, with Baucus leading the way, because they were seen as a dire threat to water quality and fisheries from the border to Flathead Lake.
In the meantime, then-Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer led the State Land Board in effectively banning mining and drilling on the North Fork’s Coal Creek State Forest, and large companies with leases in the North Fork voluntarily retired about 85 percent of the leases held on national forest lands.
The legislation now winding through Congress is a final obligation to meet in a memorandum of understanding between British Columbia and Montana.
“It represents reciprocity for what our Canadian neighbors have already done,” Jamison said.
But there is more recent news from north of the border.
On Sept. 23, the Canadian federal government announced it would exempt portions of what’s known as the Dominion Coal Blocks from development in the northernmost headwaters of the Canadian North Fork. Prior to that announcement, the blocks were expected to be part of a planned sale of federal lands extending into the Elk River Basin.
“While details around the planned sale are not yet clear, we are encouraged that the federal government has confirmed that portions of the coal blocks overlapping with the Flathead River watershed will not be included in the sale and that discussions with the province are underway to ensure the protection of the entire watershed from development,” said John Bergenske of the Canadian conservation group Wildsight.
Meanwhile, the Flathead National Forest officially kicked off its latest forest plan revision process on Wednesday with a meeting that attracted nearly 40 people to discuss an assessment process that is now required under forest planning rules. Assessment involves evaluating existing information about ecological, economic, and social conditions and trends on the forest.
The following day, there was a forest planning field trip to the North Fork that attracted about 35 people, reflecting high interest in that portion of the Flathead Forest.
“We had a full bus,” forest planner Rob Carlin said. “We discussed the assessment process and the topics of wild and scenic rivers, inventoried roadless areas and also the process of wilderness evaluation and recommended wilderness.”
In 2006, the Flathead Forest came out with a draft forest plan that included wilderness recommendations for the Thompson-Seton and Tuchuck roadless areas overlooking the northernmost portion of the North Fork.
The draft forest plan was withdrawn in 2008 because of litigation and now the forest is operating under planning rules approved in 2012 that emphasize collaboration and public engagement.
Carlin said those elements will be prominent in a forest planning process that could take several years.
For people who haven’t been able to attend recent daytime field trips, an open house will be held on Oct. 3 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Flathead Forest Supervisor’s Office on Wolfpack Way in Kalispell.
And on Oct. 10 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the same location, there will be an orientation for people who want to participate in future collaborative efforts.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.