Earlier this month, the U.S. House passed the North Fork Watershed Protection Act in what conservationists hailed as a critical step for wildlife and clean water in northwest Montana. That approval, secured by Rep. Steve Daines, marks the most significant advancement yet in a fight former Sen. Max Baucus waged over four decades in Congress.
The moment itself passed quickly, in a manner typically used to approve small, non-controversial bills. The measure's speedy passage on the House floor was attributed to the widespread bipartisan support it has gained over time. Proponents now include county commissions, city officials, chambers of commerce, sporting groups and business leaders across western Montana. Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP America and ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy have backed the bill as well.
Michael Jamison with the National Parks Conservation Association's Glacier field office credits the broad support to a host of factors, including the North Fork's proximity to Glacier National Park and how long the issue has been debated. In particular, he feels the bill's simplicity has given it an edge over other state-based conservation legislation.
"The North Fork bill is 190 words long," Jamison says. "It's half the length of a letter to the editor. It's probably one of the shortest pieces of legislation that Congress will look at this year because it only does one thing. It doesn't create wilderness and it doesn't try to deal with timber management or any of that. It just simply says that we're not going to offer any more [mining] leases."
The Montana Wilderness Association promptly declared Daines' involvement a turning point for the North Fork. MWA Executive Director Brian Sybert hopes the bill's passage in the House is a sign not just of progress for the Flathead but of future unification by Montana's congressional delegation around other grassroots conservation proposals.
"Getting conservation legislation out of the House ... has not been easy," Sybert says. "So the fact that we were able to get this Montana-made bill that protects a critical watershed out of the House is significant in and of itself."
The bill now goes to the Senate, where success is still not guaranteed despite the backing of Sens. John Walsh and Jon Tester. If the bill does cross the finish line, however, Jamison believes the credit ultimately goes to the man who first dug in his heels for the fight 40 years ago.
"Whether it's Rep. Daines who gets it through the House or whether it's Sen. Walsh or Sen. Daines or Sen. Tester who gets it through the Senate," Jamison says, "the legacy belongs to Max Baucus."