BLANKENSHIP BRIDGE – “Thank you’s” may have flowed even more easily than the relatively low North Fork of the Flathead River on Monday morning, as the National Parks Conservation Association celebrated the North Fork Watershed Protection Act on rocks that form the river’s bed at higher water.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., hailed the legislation as “an incredible bipartisan agreement” that “makes sure Flathead Lake will be Flathead Lake for generations to come.”
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said it was “ultimately, a means to an end, to protect a way of life.”
That Tester and Daines aren’t often found on the same dais, let alone the same side of many issues, highlighted the cooperation it took to finally get the bill through Congress last year.
Both senators were among those Monday who noted decades of groundwork laid for the act by former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, now the American ambassador to China.
Tester said he was a senior in high school when Baucus was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and began work to protect the North Fork, and Daines said Baucus was still at it when he first met the then-new senator as a high school junior and Boys’ State delegate in 1979.
“Without (Baucus), we would not be here,” said Michael Jamison, Crown of the Continent program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “He spent decades working on this.”
Daines became the first Republican member of Congress to introduce the North Fork Watershed Protection Act when he did so in 2013 as a member of the U.S. House and guided it through that body.
Tester, and Baucus’ replacement, former Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., were tasked with moving it through the Senate.
These days, politicians from the two political parties “are not known for cooperation,” Jamison said, “but Mr. Tester, Mr. Daines and Sen. John Walsh agreed to agree on one thing – the North Fork.”
It took more than American politicians to make it work.
British Columbia lawmakers got the legislative ball rolling in 2011 when they banned mining in the headwaters of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
“Montana and British Columbia worked together – it took years of hard work and good faith – to stand together as partners, allies and friends,” said Marcy Grossman, consul general for the Rocky Mountain Region of the Canadian government who also attended Monday’s event. “It reminds us all of what we can do when we work together.”
Canada and the U.S. share the world’s longest border, Grossman noted, and Montana is the only U.S. state that abuts three Canadian provinces.
“It’s essential that we work together,” Grossman said. “The Flathead River is a mutual resource. It’s imperative we safeguard it.”
Also on hand was Bij Agarwal, vice president for the Rockies Business Unit of energy giant ConocoPhillips.
ConocoPhillips relinquished, without compensation, more than 100 oil and gas leases it owned on 169,000 acres in the North Fork at the request of Baucus and Tester in 2010.
They weren’t the only oil, gas and mining leases that existed in the North Fork, Jamison said, but others followed the example set by ConocoPhillips.
“They were the first domino,” Jamison said.
The North Fork Watershed Protection Act precludes future gas, oil and mining leases on more than 383,000 acres of federal land in the North Fork.
To the displeasure of some environmental groups, it also released wilderness study areas for possible oil and gas extraction, but Tester has previously said giving up “a little” to “get a lot” was a necessary compromise.
Daines’ decision to become the first Republican in the GOP-controlled House to introduce the legislation – Jamison called it “courageous” – was obviously one key.
“The greatness of our public lands is part of this experiment we call the United States of America, and it’s something most countries don’t have,” Daines said. “We were working hard on the House side to get it to the desk of the president.”
It passed the House without opposition on March 4, 2014 – the first time it passed either chamber of Congress.
The Senate posed a much different problem.
There, three conservative Republican senators – Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania – continually blocked the North Fork legislation from advancing.
Tester called them “three people who have never been to the North Fork and who frankly couldn’t find it on a map.”
He and Walsh instead attached the bill to the National Defense Authorization Act, as did congressmen sponsoring 69 other public land bills. Daines also attached it to the National Defense Authorization Act in the House.
The NDAA passed both the House and Senate in December, and was signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 19.
For those who gathered at Blankenship Bridge, located a few miles southwest of West Glacier, to celebrate it, the only drawback was the heavy smoke from dozens of wildfires across the Northwest that blanketed the area.
Daines said it appeared that “secondhand smoke from Washington is blowing our way,” while Jamison noted that Baucus now lives and works at the U.S. Consulate in heavily polluted Beijing.
“This is called a good-air day in Beijing,” Jamison said.
But this day was about water, and the land surrounding it.
“I’m struck by the word ‘the’ in ‘the North Fork,’ ” Jamison said. “it’s not ‘a north fork,’ it’s ‘the North Fork.’ ”
“The” is reserved for iconic places, he said – the moon, the North Pole, the North Fork.
The North Fork has meaning to everyone from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to the timber industry, and with help from them, business people, conservation groups, energy companies and politicians in two nations, Jamison said, “We’ve created a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its parts.”