Vol. 10,   No. 33 Missoula, Montana Week of 8/19/99

Pristine Vs. Profitable

Residents rally to protect the North Fork


Rumbling down the bumpy North Fork Road in his dilapidated Dodge, John Frederick spent many a long night jousting and joking with his Flathead neighbors about the future of this international valley, which is home to a smattering of humans, a rich wildlife community, and the highest density of non-coastal grizzly bears in North America.

Frederick and dozens of other Flathead citizens participated in a unique collaborative effort to seek agreement on how to manage the American side of this world-class watershed. In 1992, after a year of late-night meetings, the all-inclusive North Fork Steering Committee created by Governor Stan Stephens approved a remarkable consensus strategy to "sustain the environment for fish, wildlife and people."

Today, those strategies sit dusty and idle, ignored in a recent binational rush to exploit the North Fork's still-wild resources for profit and progress.

"(The consensus group) was a great effort," recalls Frederick, who runs a rustic hostel and guest ranch in Polebridge. "We wrote the good ideas down, argued about them and eventually we all reached agreement. And then it was forgotten."

In the early 1990s, the North Fork consensus group, organized by the quasi-governmental Flathead Basin Commission, was at the forefront of a wave of community-based collaborative groups created to find local solutions to thorny natural resource issues. Ominously, the North Fork experience suggests that collaborative solutions won't fly if they truly advance the common interest over the selfish claims of powerful outside interests.

To wit, public officials in the United States and British Columbia have disregarded the U.S. North Fork strategy and related Canadian efforts to conserve the upper Flathead watershed, which extends 40 miles north of the Canadian border. For example:

Although the Flathead consensus group opposed paving of the North Fork road, Flathead County Commissioner Dale Williams, Sen. Conrad Burns and U.S. Rep. Rick Hill are seeking $2.4 million in federal handouts to pave the lower 10 miles of the dirt road. A thousand people have signed a petition opposed to asphalt and speeding vehicles, to which Williams responds, "We don't necessarily do our road projects by polls. ... The biggest mob doesn't always win."

During the consensus process, the Montana managers of the state forest system agreed that habitat conservation would be the highest priority in the North Fork. Several years later, state forest managers reneged on that promise with plans to log one of the valley's finest groves of old-growth forest.

The community group unanimously asked the Flathead National Forest to recommend wilderness designation for three roadless areas near the Canadian border. Instead, the agency has condoned a growing invasion of these wildlands by off-road vehicles, which conservation groups claim violates the agency's own forest plan as well as the consensus strategy.

On the Canadian side, a similar consensus effort to prioritize wildlife conservation was gutted by provincial officials in Victoria at the behest of the mining industry. This summer, two mining companies started drilling for gold 12 miles north of the U.S. border. Meanwhile, a massive timber sale is flagged on the subalpine boundaries of a provincial park just north of Glacier National Park. A major coal mine development announced in 1997 by Fording Coal remains in limbo while global coal markets stumble.

The British Columbia government of Premier Glen Clark proposes to auction a commercial off-road vehicle lease for the Canadian Flathead. The proposal was made without any public input and fails to consider the area's high wildlife values, according to the East Kootenai Environmental Society (EKES).

International efforts to protect the North Fork's pristine water quality and wildlife were sparked in 1988 by a diplomatic dispute resolution process initiated under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The International Joint Commission (IJC) recommended that B.C. shelve an earlier coal mining proposal until both countries develop sustainable management plans for the upper Flathead.

In response to the IJC report, former Montana governors Ted Schwinden and Stan Stephens actively supported North Forkers trying to protect their valley. But since 1993, Gov. Marc Racicot has remained on the sidelines. In recent years, the Flathead Basin Commission has stepped back from controversy to fight off repeated attacks by the Montana Legislature amid neglect by the governor's office to which it reports.

Mark Holston, the Basin Commission's information officer, acknowledges the North Fork strategy won't be implemented without citizen pressure. "It's up to local residents to make it an issue," he says. "(The consensus strategy) may be somewhat forgotten, but it's definitely not dead. It's still there for people to use."

And use it they will, say Montana and U.S. conservationists who joined forces last year to promote transboundary conservation in the North Fork. The coalition, led by EKES and the Montana Wilderness Association, recently issued a 150-page report on the threats to the upper Flathead.

"We've got so many daggers pointed at the North Fork right now. It's a classic example of short-term profits for a few versus long-term preservation for the rest of us," says Frederick, who participates in the conservation coalition. "But it's not over yet, I tell people-unless you do nothing."

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