Frank Vitale: Political shenanigans continue with North Fork bills

Frank Vitale is understandably annoyed with the political posturing holding up the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. This op-ed appeared May 14 on the Hungry Horse News website and has been submitted to a number of other regional newspapers . . .

My affiliation with the North Fork spans 35 years. As a North Fork landowner, I’ve worked, hunted, fished and cleared many miles of trails. For me, keeping the North Fork pristine is personal.

That’s why I’m so disappointed by the recent decision by Republicans in Congress to block a bipartisan bill to protect the North Fork.

Montanans have read conflicting information about how we reached this impasse (see Mac Minard’s April 19 op-ed in the Daily Inter Lake). I want to set the record straight.

Congressman Steve Daines recently told U.S. News that his strategy to win the Senate race this year is to pick off and neutralize constituents like advocates for the North Fork. His recent actions show why he can’t be trusted.

Sens. John Walsh and Jon Tester are pushing a bill, originally introduced in 2010, to withdraw the U.S. watershed from future development, following through on a deal between Montana and British Columbia to permanently protect the North Fork.

Montanans were hopeful when Congressman Daines introduced a companion bill last year, marking the first time in 30 years that the whole delegation supported a public lands bill. Our hopes rose further when on March 4 the House of Representatives passed the bill.

Unfortunately the North Fork has now run into the Tea Party gauntlet in the Senate. What is clear is that the game was rigged.

On April 3, three Republican Senators from other states — Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Texas — blocked our senators’ attempt to pass this made-in-Montana bill in the Senate. The Senator from Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey, recently donated $10,000 to Congressman Daines’ campaign.

As Congressman Daines knows, the vote in the Senate (by “unanimous consent”) was the Senate’s equivalent of how the House passed the bill. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, “Most noncontroversial measures are approved by ‘suspension of the rules’ in the House, and by unanimous consent in the Senate.”

In fact, all eight Senate public lands bills that have passed the chamber this Congress passed by unanimous consent. Those bills set aside 85,000 acres of new wilderness and 73 miles of Wild and Scenic River designation in eight different states.

So why is the North Fork bill so different for Senate Republicans?

The answer reminds me of another Senate race 26 years ago, when President Reagan pocket-vetoed the last Montana wilderness bill to pass Congress in order to jam then-Senator John Melcher in his race against Conrad Burns.

For example, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is insisting on the opportunity to offer controversial amendments to the North Fork that would have brought down the entire proposal. This is a familiar ploy. The same Republican demand last fall (supported by Congressman Daines) caused the shutdown of the federal government for 16 days, costing Montana upwards of $45 million in lost business from Glacier and Yellowstone national parks alone.

I am confident that our senators will find a way to protect the North Fork. But how can Montanans trust Steve Daines when he won’t even stand up to his own allies in the Senate who help finance his campaign?