North Fork deal is a winner

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It’s hard to overstate the significance of the recently announced commitment of the Nature Conservancy to provide about $9.4 million to seal a deal between Montana and British Columbia that will prevent mining in the Canadian headwaters of the Flathead River Basin.

It’s even harder to overstate what a sweet deal it is. Montana businesses, conservation groups and political leaders have been battling mining proposals in the British Columbia Flathead drainage for the last 30 years, never really knowing when the next battle would come.

Now, because of a memorandum of understanding between the province and the state that was announced a year ago, there is a prohibition on mining in the remote and pristine drainage that feeds Montana’s North Fork Flathead River.

A major hurdle in finalizing the deal, from the Canadian perspective, was compensating Cline Mining Corp. for its provincially sanctioned exploration investments in a coal mine, and Max Resource Corp. for its investments in a gold mining venture.

The estimated price tag is about $9.4 million, and the Nature Conservancy in Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Montana stepped forward to split that amount, with a plan to raise the funds over the next couple of years. Those organizations deserve kudos for their commitment, because neither Congress nor a single federal bureaucracy was stepping forward to provide the money.

Of course, it’s good to see taxpayers get off the hook, but the thought of this deal falling apart because our spend-crazed federal government couldn’t come up with $9 million is unbearable.

Consider that the British Columbia provincial government generously forfeited up to $7 billion in potential royalties that would come from those two mines. That’s because the provincial government recognized the importance of the Canadian Flathead, and the reality that there would be a perpetual fight with Montana.

The transboundary drainage is an intact ecosystem closely intertwined with Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park. It has a full range of predators and other wildlife that existed there a century ago and still roam freely. Mining would certainly have had impacts on water quality and fisheries south of the border, judging from striking water quality differences between the North Fork Flathead and BC’s heavily mined Elk River drainage.

It’s not widely recognized, but a significant percentage of Flathead Lake’s already threatened bull trout, as well as cutthroat trout, use Canadian streams for spawning, so protecting the drainage will have immediate and long-range benefits.

And what has often been lost in the wash in this ongoing issue is the probability that if Cline and Max Resource had been allowed to proceed, other similar operations would follow. It’s our bet that if mining development unfolded in the Canadian Flathead  over the next few decades, the impacts would be such that Montana’s legal grievances would be immense.

But Montana and British Columbia have wisely and thankfully found a way to prevent that from happening.

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