International Efforts Help Preserve the North Fork

By JUSTIN FRANZ of Flathead Beacon.

One hundred years from now, when members of a future generation are enjoying the pristine beauty of the North Fork of the Flathead River, it won’t matter who protected the land. It will just matter that it got done.

That’s the message Gov. Brian Schweitzer is sending, as conservation groups in the United States and Canada celebrate raising $10 million to reimburse mining companies in southeast British Columbia. The Nature Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy of Canada were wrapping up the campaign last month.

The payment is part of the Flathead Watershed Area Conservation Act passed in British Columbia in 2011. The legislation prohibits mining and energy extraction on 400,000 acres of land in the river basin north of the border. It also reimburses mining companies that have already conducted exploration in the area. The conservation act was a result of a 2010 agreement between Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell; an agreement the governor said was long overdue.

“For 30 years, Montana politicians have been moving their lips about preserving the North Fork, but nothing ever happened,” Schweitzer said.

Proctor Lake in the North Fork of the Flathead River valley. Photo courtesy of Garth Lenz/The Nature Conservancy.

The East Kootenay Coalfields of southeastern British Columbia are some of the most fertile mining grounds in western Canada, according to the provincial government. Since 1898, more than 500 million tons of coal has been extracted from the region. For years, conservationists have been concerned about mining exploration in the environmentally sensitive headwaters of the Flathead River.

“This area is globally significant, because the ecosystem is intact,” said Kat Imhoff, Montana state director for The Nature Conservancy.

Imhoff said much of the credit for preserving the area belongs with Schweitzer and Campbell. The governor says he was “just along for the ride.”

During a series of meetings, the two men negotiated an agreement that would protect the federally owned land. In 2010 an agreement between the two governments was announced and the following year the watershed protection act was passed. Schweitzer said one of the biggest challenges was finding the funds to put the legislation into motion.

A solution was found during a meeting between Schweitzer and Canadian ambassador and former Manitoba Premier Gary Doer. The two men decided to appeal to their country’s respective Nature Conservancy groups to raise the $10 million.

Imhoff said the protection of 400,000 acres north of the border has a direct impact on people in Northwest Montana. The river provides drinking water for more than 100,000 people in Montana and it’s the habitat for bighorn sheep, moose, wolverines, elk and one of the largest populations of grizzly bears in North America.

Mt. Hefty lookout over the Flathead Valley. Photo courtesy of Garth Lenz/The Nature Conservancy.

“People really understand watersheds and the river valley,” Imhoff said. “People understood the impact of this project. It was very graspable.”

In less than a year, The Nature Conservancy and Nature Conservancy of Canada raised $10 million to give to the British Columbia government in September. The largest contributions came from Canada’s Natural Areas Conservation Program that gave $5.4 million and Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm, which contributed $2.5 million – the largest private donation.

Nancy Newhouse, project manger for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, said she hopes the partnership between the two groups is the first of many.

“I think there is a great opportunity here, because nature doesn’t recognize the international boundary, so it makes sense for us to work together on future projects.”

Schweitzer said the international partnership between Montana and the provinces to the north are essential. He hopes the positive relationships he has fostered in the last few years continue after he leaves office in January. But more than anything, it’s the preservation of one of North America’s most pristine landscapes that matters to him.

“For the next 100 years, people won’t know who was here and who negotiated this deal, but our grandchildren and their children will know that the North Fork has been protected forever,” he said. “The next time I’m drifting in the North Fork and I’ve got a line in and a beer open, I’ll say this was good.”