Daybreak on August 8 found me on a bank of the North Fork of the Flathead River in northwestern Montana, among the mixed tracks of deer, otters, and grizzly bears, marveling, as I have a thousand times before, at the near-magical transparency of these waters.
The bottom stones stood out as if on display under glass. Decades ago, my wife and I built a cabin nearby.
Across the river on the east bank, in Glacier National Park, the campers were stirring in their tents and the first cars were snaking up the Going to the Sun Road. But I was headed west that day, into the Whitefish Range, to see a man about the future of this valley.
Later that morning, I started up the Glacier View Mountain Trail above Big Creek, a tributary of the North Fork. In a month or two bull trout, a threatened species, would be swimming up the creek to spawn. The trail wound up a mountainside that had burned in 2001 and was now dotted with gray, weathered snags. Young lodgepole pines were growing in among them, along with Douglas fir and wild rose and blossoming fireweed. The pines offered the only shade as the day's temperature rose into the 80s.
After the better part of a mile, I heard the scrape and ping of tempered steel on stone. A trail crew from the Montana Conservation Corps was digging into the steep slope to widen a series of switchbacks. Small plumes of dust drifted from their shovels and pickaxes. I met young recruits from places like Ohio and Brooklyn. I also met a 71-year-old guy in a hard hat, jeans, and sweaty, dirt-smudged T-shirt, who was whacking away at the slope with a pickax.
That was the man I'd come for: Montana Senator Max Baucus, current chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Today was one of his periodic "work days" back home, when he joins fellow Montanans at their jobs, and he had invited a few reporters to join him on the crew's lunch break. He wanted to talk about something close to his heart: the North Fork Watershed Protection Act.
When You Float It You Understand
The North Fork begins in British Columbia and flows 45 miles (72 kilometers) through undeveloped provincial forest there. After crossing into Montana, it continues for an approximately equal distance, defining the western boundary of Glacier National Park, before joining the Flathead's Middle Fork. The North Fork Valley is a corridor for wolves and lynx as well as grizzlies and bull trout, and a haven for an incredible diversity of plants and aquatic insects.
Only a tiny percentage of the valley is private property; most is public land. My own 32-acre patch of paradise is surrounded on three sides by the Flathead National Forest, and on the fourth by the river. But public land can be leased for mining, oil and gas drilling, and other purposes. For decades the valley has faced one industrial threat after another.
Baucus's commitment to safeguarding it began shortly after he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974. A Toronto-based mining corporation had proposed a massive open-pit coal-mining operation and coal-fired power plant near Cabin Creek, a Canadian tributary of the North Fork, just six miles from the northwestern corner of Glacier Park.
All at once, the wild, remote, and largely pristine nature of the valley was at serious risk. So was the extraordinary water quality of both the river and Flathead Lake, which begins about 30 miles downstream from where the North, Middle, and South forks of the Flathead join. The lake is the largest natural body of freshwater in the western United States.
Senator Max Baucus and Douglas H. Chadwick at the North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana.
Photograph by Kathy Weber
"As soon as I heard about this mine proposal, I booked a trip to Toronto," Baucus said. "I knew the North Fork and that part of Glacier Park. I'd hiked and camped out and stayed in cabins there. When I first floated the river, drifting past the peaks and the wildlife, looking down into that crystal-clear water, it only confirmed my instincts. I didn't go to Toronto to negotiate. I said no. Just no. Period."
He didn't convince the mining company, however. The battle for the North Fork was really just beginning. In the early 1980s the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began leasing vast tracts of the Flathead National Forest for oil and gas exploration. Seismic surveys got underway in the Whitefish Range. I remember being startled on morning river walks by the dynamite explosions. My wife and I began to talk about selling our land.
Shooting the Rapids
That we have never had to—because the river has not yet lost its luminous luster, and industrial activity has not yet permanently erased the solitude and silence of the valley—is due in part to the coalitions of citizens that sprang up on both sides of the border to defend the North Fork, and to conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy. But Baucus deserves a lot of credit too.
As early as 1976 he had succeeded in getting the three forks of the Flathead added to America's National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. (Read about America's wild rivers in National Geographic magazine.) In the 1980s he persuaded the State Department to intervene to stop the Cabin Creek coal mine. By the end of the decade that plan had faded away. Meanwhile, on the American side of the North Fork, the BLM had agreed to suspend the issuance of new oil and gas exploration leases. The future was looking brighter.
Then came the 2000s. The Cline Mining Corporation proposed to remove a mountaintop near the North Fork's headwaters in British Columbia to get at coal underneath. British Petroleum wanted to build hundreds of drilling pads in the same region, along with a web of new pipelines and roads, to extract coal-bed methane. Another mining company claimed it had discovered generous deposits of gold there too.
At that point, Baucus joined Montana's other senator, newly elected Jon Tester, and then-governor Brian Schweitzer, to negotiate directly with Canadian government officials. The effort paid off. During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the premier of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell, announced a moratorium on mining and hydrocarbon development on the Canadian side of the North Fork. The Nature Conservancy agreed to compensate the mining companies.
Through that year and the next, Baucus and Tester also negotiated with oil and gas companies on the U.S. side. The companies agreed to voluntarily withdraw 80 percent of the leases they held along the North Fork.
A Bipartisan River
Now both senators are lobbying hard for passage of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which would permanently prevent the U.S. government from offering new oil and gas leases there. Baucus, who has announced his retirement in 2014, sees the bill as a capstone to his career.
In June it passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with unanimous bipartisan support. Steve Daines, a conservative Republican who is Montana's sole member of the House of Representatives, is pushing for its passage there.
Bipartisan agreement on an environmental issue is as rare in Montana as it is nationwide. "This is as much about the future of our economy," Baucus explained. "Recreation is Montana's second-largest industry today, and it's growing at a faster rate than the number one industry, agriculture. We're talking about protecting a special place for hiking, floating, camping, hunting and fishing, bird-watching—all the outdoor activities Montanans love and visitors come to enjoy."
In a state with barely a million residents, Glacier Park alone hosts anywhere from 2 million to 2.5 million tourists each year. No doubt few are aware of the long-running battle to preserve the river that runs by it.
"It takes work to keep and enjoy our public lands," Baucus told me. He was still sweating from his efforts with the pickax. "You just continue going and going. You never quit, never give up. It's a lot like building trail."