By Tom Kuglin
The North Fork of the Flathead River Transboundary region — a 9,000 square mile, largely undeveloped area on the western rim of Glacier National Park that stretches all the way north into British Columbia — has become the subject of an unlikely coalition between conservation groups, oil companies, and politicians from both sides of the aisle.
This winter, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Steve Daines, pushed for federal legislation to bar mining and energy exploration from 300,000 acres in part of the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states. The acreage at stake was more than twice the size of Flathead Lake.
Tester and Baucus have already negotiated the voluntary release of 80 percent, or about 200,000 acres of energy and mining leases, from companies like ConocoPhil- lips, Chevron, and British Petroleum.
“We recognized it as a wild and scenic place, and that’s why we gave up our leases,” said Jim Lowry, director of communications and public affairs for ConocoPhillips Lower 48.
That leaves 20 percent of leaseholders with rights to explore for oil, gas, and precious metals in the proposed protected area. Devon Energy, an Oklahoma-based oil and gas exploration firm, is one of them. It has held on to its leases despite strong political pressure from the Montana delegation.
“All I can say is we’ve been in conversations with those delegates, and those conversations continue,” said Cindy Allen, a Devon Energy spokesperson.
Devon Energy would essentially hold leases in an area surrounded by protected land, making federal approval for potential development unlikely.
Because the bill preserves its legal rights and a current court-ordered moratorium on mining and energy development is technically considered temporary, Devon Energy has little legal recourse to either develop its leases or seek compensation.
The federal legislation not only protects the North Fork from development, but it would also protect companies like Con- ocoPhillips and BP. They voluntarily gave up their options to explore and drill with the thought that future leases would not be issued to competitors.
“Those companies gave up for free something of value,” said Michael Jamison, Crown of the Continent program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Well, the last thing that they want after giving up something of value is for a competitor of theirs to come in and pick it up again.”
Besides business considerations, the bill is important because it makes a point to the Canadian government that the United States is committed to protecting these ecosystems on both sides of the border.
It was initially introduced after a 2010 Memorandum of Understanding between then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer and then-British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell calling for a ban on energy and mining in the Transboundary Flathead region.
Canada has already passed legislation barring energy and mining in the Canadian Flathead. The Nature Conservancy, the Canadian government, and investors raised a total of $17 million to compen- sate mining companies owning leases in the Canadian Flathead for their investments.
Cline Mining, a Canadian-based company that had proposed an open pit coalmine in the headwaters of the Canadian Flathead, filed suit in Canada in 2012 for $500 million in compensation for lost future revenue. The suit is still pending.
Canadian environmental law puts fewer regulations than U.S. law on mining and energy companies for the degradation caused by development. The national and provincial governments of Canada have traditionally put development over environmental concerns.
Jamison believes it is important for the U.S. to continue to encourage more environmentally responsible action by the Canadians.
“We have spent 30 years telling Canada that this watershed is way too important to industrialize,” Jamison said. “ We’re going to act in good faith and do what they have done”.
The ecological importance of the North Fork, and its proximity to other important ecological areas, makes it critical for genetic exchange between animals and plants.
The region connects to not only Glacier National Park to the east, but to Waterton Lakes National Park in British Columbia to the north; to the Great Bear, Scapegoat, and Bob Marshall Wilderness areas to the south; and to the Cabinet and Selkirk Mountains to the west.
The area is considered critical for providing habitat and connectivity between animal species including grizzly bears, wolverines, and lynx. The North Fork also provides exceptionally clean water for aquatic species.
Other watersheds in the Crown of the Continent Region serve as a warning for Congress as it decides what to do with the North Fork.
The Elk River, which shares the same geological coal formation as the Canadian Flathead, has experienced extensive degradation due to open pit coal mining, said Erin Sexton, a researcher with the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. Sexton won the American Fisheries Society’s 2012 Conservation Achievement Award for her work comparing the two rivers.
“We found in the Flathead water quality and an aquatic community that was nearly pristine,” Sexton said. “In the Elk, we found very degraded water quality.”
Sexton and other conservationists hope that a similar situation can be avoided in the North Fork. However, the future of the region still is not secure.
Baucus and Tester’s first two attempts at passing the North Fork Watershed Protection Act saw it die without a vote. This spring, their bill faced a partisan Congress concerned more with the nation’s financial struggles. Despite overwhelming support, many conservative lawmakers seemed unwilling to approve a bill that would take a potential source of domestic energy off the table.
But conservationists consider the progress made so far a success. They hope to continue working closely with Canada to address other areas of concern. The Elk River, which drains into the Kootenai River in Montana, could be next.