All posts by Bill Walker

Finally! Pollution in Elk-Kootenai watershed referred to the IJC

Lake Koocanusa - Ryan Fosness (Idaho Water Science Center)
Lake Koocanusa – Ryan Fosness (Idaho Water Science Center)

Here’s some good news to start the week. The Elk-Kootenai watershed cross-border water pollution from Teck Resources’ coal mining operations has finally been referred to the International Joint Commission (IJC). The Flathead Beacon has excellent coverage . . .

Federal governments in Canada and the U.S. have agreed to ask the International Joint Commission (IJC) to study and take steps to mitigate the inflow of mining pollution to the Elk-Kootenai River watershed through a joint reference, signaling a breakthrough in bilateral talks that have stalled for years, even as the company that owns the mines expands its footprint along the border with Montana.

The agreement was announced Monday by tribal and First Nation governments in Montana, Idaho and British Columbia (B.C.) who cheered the development after years of intensifying pressure on the U.S. and Canada. The reference means that an independent governance body representing both nations will convene to craft solutions to address the contaminants spilling into a watershed that crosses the international boundary at Lake Koocanusa and spans traditional Aboriginal territory.

The federal governments of both U.S. and Canada also confirmed the reference on Monday and issued a joint statement from the Ambassador of Canada to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, and the Ambassador of the United States to Canada, David L. Cohen. According to Pierre Cuguen, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada (GAC), both countries “have reached an Agreement-in-Principle (AIP) on next steps to further bilateral cooperation to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution” in the transboundary watershed.

Continue reading . . .

Extraordinary hope: a conversation with Roger Sullivan

Katy Spence of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) recently published a wonderful interview with Roger Sullivan, who happens to be a board member of both MEIC and our own NFPA. Roger has also been involved with the NFPA from the very beginning.

This piece was originally published in the MEIC’s quarterly Down to Earth publication and is used here with permission. To see the article in full context and with better formatting, you can download the entire newsletter here.

Roger Sullivan questions witnesses at the Held v. State of Montana trial in June. Photo via Roger Sullivan.

MEIC is fortunate to have a number of friends and allies that we can call upon for support, encouragement, or assistance. This year, we feel especially fortunate to know our board member, mentor, and friend Roger Sullivan. Roger has a deep history in Montana environmental law and justice. For more than 35years, Roger has advocated for Montanans and our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. He has successfully represented dozens of Libby residents sickened by exposure to asbestos from the W.R. Grace mining operations. Most recently, Roger was one of the attorneys in the landmark youth climate trial Held v. State of Montana.

Roger has served on MEIC’s board multiple times and has represented MEIC and other public health and environmental groups in innumerable cases. He tirelessly advises and mentors young environmental lawyers in the state, including many of whom have worked with (or still work with) MEIC. Continue reading Extraordinary hope: a conversation with Roger Sullivan

Feds won’t fund North Fork Road paving study

North Fork Road in Fall - USFS
North Fork Road in Fall – USFS

The expected result, but still good to know for certain . . .

Flathead County did not receive federal funding for an environmental analysis to look at paving a portion of the North Fork Road, county public works director Dave Prunty confirmed Monday.

The county sought Federal Lands Access Program monies to do a National Environmental Policy Act review of improving the road from just north of Glacier Rim to the Camas Road entrance to Glacier National Park earlier this year, but the analysis wasn’t funded.

Continue reading . . .

Montana Supreme Court revokes Rosebud Coal Mine Expansion

NFPA board member Roger Sullivan was involved in this case . . .

The Montana Supreme Court has halted an expansion of a Westmoreland-operated mine that supplies the Colstrip power plant with coal. The court’s decision vacated an 8-year-old permit that allowed Westmoreland to pull 12 million tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine located in southeastern Montana.

The environmental concern at issue related to water quality impacts to the East Fork of Armells Creek, an intermittent stream that flows into the Yellowstone River. The Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club argued that allowing strip-mining operations in AM4, a  49-acre parcel in Area B of the mine, would result in material damage to the waterway by increasing the creek’s salinity to the detriment of one of its established beneficial uses: the support of aquatic life.

The order, authored by Chief Justice Mike McGrath and signed by the court’s six other justices, largely affirmed a lower court’s ruling. It nullifies the AM4 permit, disallowing mining in that area. Prior to arriving at the Montana Supreme Court, DEQ’s decision in 2015 to approve the expansion had been weighed by the Board of Environmental Review (a quasi-judicial, governor-appointed body) and the Sixteenth Judicial District Court.

Continue reading . . .

(A tip of the hat to Debo Powers for spotting this one.)

Tribes set end-of-year ultimatum for U.S. and Canada to address transboundary mining crisis in Elk-Kootenai drainage

Lake Koocanusa
Lake Koocanusa

Their patience has run out . . .

When Rich Janssen flips through the 2023 calendar, he sees months of missed opportunities to tackle a multi-national environmental crisis that has united tribal and First Nation governments spanning the U.S.-Canada border as few causes have before.

Last year’s calendar isn’t much different. Neither is the year before that.

For decades, open-pit coal mines located in the Elk Valley of southeast British Columbia (B.C.) have leached selenium, nitrate, and sulphate into the Elk and Kootenai rivers. Since 2012, Indigenous leaders from the Ktunaxa Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho (KTOI) have been urging Canada and the U.S. to address the water quality crisis.

Continue reading . . .

Wolverines to receive federal protection

Wolverine in snow - Steve Kroschel
Wolverine in snow – Steve Kroschel

Well, now. Here’s some good news . . .

The North American wolverine will receive long-delayed federal protections under a Biden administration proposal released Wednesday in response to scientists warning that climate change will likely melt away the rare species’ snowy mountain refuges.

Across most of the U.S., wolverines were wiped out by the early 1900s from unregulated trapping and poisoning campaigns. About 300 surviving animals in the contiguous U.S. live in fragmented, isolated groups at high elevations in the northern Rocky Mountains.

In the coming decades, warming temperatures are expected to shrink the mountain snowpack wolverines rely on to dig dens where they birth and raise their young.

The decision Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follows more than two decades of disputes over the risks of climate change, and threats to the long-term survival of the elusive species. Officials wrote in the proposal that protections under the Endangered Species Act were needed “due primarily to the ongoing and increasing impacts of climate change and associated habitat degradation and fragmentation.”

Continue reading . . .

Flathead Forest invites public comment on winter recreation special use permit proposals

Flathead National Forest
Flathead National Forest

Tristan Scott at the Flathead Beacon posted an excellent write-up on this winter’s set of special use permit proposals for the Flathead National Forest.

Details of these proposals can be found here: . . .

The Flathead National Forest is processing a flurry of requests for outfitting and shuttle services this winter, with proposals ranging from guided snow-bike, snowmobiling, skiing and snow-shoe tours to therapeutic “forest bathing.”

Officials with the Flathead National Forest (FNF) are soliciting public input on requests for nine temporary special-use permits authorizing outfitting and guiding activities from approximately Dec. 1, 2023, through May 15, 2024. According to a news release announcing the proposals, each request meets the criteria to receive a special-use permit under a categorical exclusion, which is the least-intensive form of environmental review.

Eight of the proposed special uses have been approved for one-year permits in the past; however, each proposal requires approval on an annual basis. One new proposal by Glacier Nordic Club is also under review.

Continue reading . . .

Steve Gniadek: Public Must Demand Accountability by BNSF

Grizzly bears, gaping mawsNFPA member Steve Gniadek had a letter published in the Flathead Beacon today calling out the BNSF Railway for not fulfilling its promises to help reduce train-caused grizzly bear deaths . . .

Thanks to Tristan Scott for shining a spotlight on continuing train-caused grizzly bear mortalities (Flathead Beacon, Oct. 4, 2023). The late Dr. Charles Jonkel first raised the alarm in the 1980s when he learned that grain spills were attracting grizzlies that were subsequently killed on the tracks. In the early ‘90s I represented Glacier National Park on a working group that resulted in the establishment of the Great Northern Environmental Stewardship Area (GNESA), with the goal of reducing the risk to grizzlies and other wildlife. BNSF provided funding for a state bear management position, and other mitigation measures. There seemed to be progress with the development of a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). So, I was shocked and disappointed to learn there has been little recent progress, and that BNSF has not committed to funding the measures identified over 20 years ago. The HCP is long overdue, and BNSF needs to make a permanent funding commitment to mitigate the impacts from train traffic. Some have argued that BNSF is foot-dragging until the grizzly is delisted and protective provisions are no longer required. Chuck Jonkel used to speak about the million-dollar grizzly, that each bear was worth that much to the state (in tourism revenue and iconic status). Even with an expanded population since the 1980s, the per bear value is probably well more than a million today. Regardless of ESA protections, grizzly bears are a significant natural, cultural and spiritual resource, part of our identity as Montanans. The public must demand accountability by BNSF and a commitment to minimize mortality and the management of a healthy and sustainable population of grizzly bears and other wildlife.

Steve Gniadek
Columbia Falls

Book recommendation – Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet

Crossings - coverWhen did “road ecology” become a thing? It certainly sneaked up on some of us.

Anyway,  anyone who is paying attention realizes that the North Fork’s ability to maintain a balance between people living on the landscape and its unique, healthy variety of native species is coming under increasing pressure, especially during tourist season. The North Fork Road, the primary corridor for the bulk of the visitor traffic, is part of this experience — and not always in a good way. As the traffic load increases, it’s not just suspensions, tires and air filters that suffer, it also impacts the local animal population, changing their behavior, challenging them with new risks and, especially as traffic increases, forming an actual physical barrier across the landscape.

Turns out, there are ways to modify roadways to alleviate many of these problems. If you want to learn more about the subject, Ben Goldfarb’s new book, Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet, is a good place to start.

(Kudos to Suzanne Hildner for bringing this one to our attention.)

Flathead Forest Special Use Permit comments due May 18

Flathead National Forest
Flathead National Forest

[Updated original April 30 post on May 3 to incorporate various “The Last Best Ride” errata.] The Flathead National Forest has released a “Special Uses Scoping Letter” dated April 26 (PDF, 194KB) discussing this year’s batch of pending Special Use Permits (SUP’s). There has been no press release yet. I suspect we’ll see one next week.

I have had no opportunity to do a deep dive yet, but there are ten SUP’s that affect the North Fork to a greater or lesser extent. I have highlighted those items in the scoping letter and added links to their project documentation. They range from the usual collection of hiking, biking and motorized activities, to a trail run up Nasukoin Mountain, and a late-September marathon from Big Creek to Columbia Falls. Details, including maps, are posted on the forest’s “Projects” page: The cover letter lists contact information for comments and inquiries.

Note that most of the project permits impacting the North Fork are not being handled by Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District personnel. Also note that the Forest Service is only responsible for activities occurring on their lands – the marathon, for instance, is mostly a city/county/state issue.

The deadline for comments is May 18!

Special Uses Scoping Letter with links and highlighting  (PDF, 194KB)