New advocacy group to grade efforts on aquatic invaders

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Kirsten Raas jumps into Flathead Lake while her son Kellen Raas looks on from Lakeside's public dock in this file photo. (Nate Chute/Daily Inter Lake file)

A new player has emerged in the fight for the protection of the region’s waters, and next month the Watershed Protection Advocates of Northwest Montana will begin filling out its own “report card” on other agencies in the region.

The new advocacy group was formed by a number of former Flathead Basin Commission board members after the Flathead Basin Protection Fund pulled its financial support of the commission.

Watershed Protection Advocates is chaired by former Flathead Basin Commission chairperson Jan Metzmaker, and former Flathead Basin Commission Executive Director Caryn Miske is the sole contractor for the new advocacy group. Miske was terminated form her position on the commission in February following a series of allegations of misconduct made by Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials.

Metzmaker, who said she worked on the commission with Miske for 12 years, said the allegations were mostly unfounded and that Miske’s expertise on aquatic invasive species will serve as a valuable resource in the advocacy group’s mission.

“While the situation with the Flathead Basin Commission is unfortunate, the newly formed Watershed Protection Advocates provides a unique opportunity to serve as an advocate for threatened natural resources in the Flathead and offers a true voice for western Montana residents,” Metzmaker said.

According to Miske, one of the driving factors behind the creation Watershed Protection Advocates is concern over the lack of independence of the Flathead Basin Commission from the DNRC. She said the commission was originally created in 1983 by the state Legislature to act as a separate agency outside of the government.

During her time as the commission’s executive director, Miske said she saw a lot of contention between members of the group about whether they were allowed to advocate on behalf of certain issues. The verdict they reached, she said, was that, no, they could not.

Following Miske’s termination and major funding cuts, the commission met last month and decided to abandon its leadership role in the prevention of aquatic invasive species. The commission instead opted to focus on other water quality issues and let the state’s Upper Columbia Conservation Commission take the lead in the fight against mussels.

In a media release issued Monday, Watershed Protection Advocates claimed that action “contravened state law” regarding the independence of commission, and “defied key elements of AIS laws passed in the last legislative session.”

“In effect, the DNRC silenced the Basin’s most vocal voice on AIS issues,” the release stated.

Metzmaker and Miske said they hope Watershed Protection Advocates will be able to step up and fill in the gaps the commission left behind, if there are any. That will be the group’s first task following the organization’s official launch next month, Metzmaker said.

Watershed Protection Advocates plan to use the $25,000 of available funding remaining from the former Flathead Basin Protection Fund to finance an overall assessment of the state’s various mussel prevention programs — including spending, personnel and other aspects — in order to identify areas in which additional advocacy and support is needed.

Metzmaker said the group will specifically be looking at the operation of inspection stations across the state and will be lobbying the state Legislature for a more permanent funding source for the fight against the aquatic invaders.

The group will continue its fundraising efforts once the results of the AIS “report card” comes in, Metzmaker said.

The goal, she said, is to work with other agencies, including the Flathead Basin Commission, to fill evaluate what could be done better.

“We’re not adversaries,” Metzmaker said. “We’re trying to work with groups to accomplish the same end.”

As the group gets going, Metzmaker said the group will also tackle rail safety issues associated with the transport of hazardous materials along waterways, mining, drought and flood planning, and more.

Miske said that since the group is unaffiliated with the government or other agencies, they have the freedom to speak out in favor or opposition of the various facets of mussel prevention.

“We are not seeking to duplicate what other organizations are doing, but we are looking to work in partnership with existing organizations to better protect natural resources in Northwest Montana,” Metzmaker said.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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