Canadian Flathead map

The North Fork of the Flathead River may be permanently off limits to gold and coal mining because of multimillion-dollar contributions by two private conservation groups.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced on Monday that Nature Conservancy Canada and the U.S.-based The Nature Conservancy are willing to pay $9.4 million to cover the expenses of mining firms that have been exploring the Canadian end of the Flathead River drainage.

Schweitzer said the proposal grew out of conversations he had with Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer in December.

"He said if they (The Nature Conservancy) pony up half the money, I can talk to Nature Conservancy Canada and they'll pony up half," Schweitzer said of his meeting with Doer. "It's a drop in the bucket for permanent protection of the most extraordinary place on the planet."

A year ago, Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell announced an agreement to take the cross-boundary Flathead River out of energy and mining development. The river forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park in Montana, and sits one drainage away from a major coal production area in Canada. Canadian mining companies had already started to seek gold and coal in the Flathead.

But there was no active mining on the U.S. side, which left Montana with little to put on the table, while the British Columbia government was giving up potentially $5 billion or more in mineral royalties. So Schweitzer offered to help find money to cover the mining companies' sunk exploration costs.

The deal is still in final negotiations, according to Nature Conservancy spokeswoman Bebe Crouse.

"It's the British Columbia government that's directly dealing with the mining companies," Crouse said. "We've got to raise the money. It's going to be all private money, no government money."

A spokeswoman at Nature Conservancy Canada said the organization wasn't ready to comment on Monday. The two groups are similarly named but not affiliated. However, a Canadian branch of the American Nature Conservancy is also involved, Crouse said.

British Columbia Lt. Gov. Steven Point referred to the agreement in Monday's Throne Speech before the B.C. Parliament. He used the same occasion last year to unveil the memorandum.

"We will also complete the commitment made with the state of Montana to sustain the environmental values in the Flathead River Basin in a manner consistent with current forestry, recreation, guide outfitting and trapping uses," Point said. "The memorandum of understanding and cooperation signed by British Columbia and witnessed by interested First Nations and American tribes has been described by Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper and President (Barack) Obama as an ‘historic' agreement to sustain the environmental values in this area. We look forward to implementing this agreement with our partners and paralleling steps taken recently in the United States Congress and by the state of Montana."

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Last summer, Schweitzer asked Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester for up to $17 million to retire the mining company expenses. The senators replied that the request wasn't made properly to qualify for federal funds. On Monday, Schweitzer vented frustration at the lack of response.

"We were four days from having this one year," Schweitzer said. "How long can you ask a friend to wait? Congress, Interior (Department), State Department they really hadn't provided us anything. No resources, no tips, no suggestions, nothing."

But on Monday, both senators praised the Nature Conservancy offer.

"I'm thrilled my efforts to engage the U.S. federal government, the Canadian federal government, British Columbia, Montana, and the NGO community are paying off," Baucus said in an e-mail statement. "When I saw the initial steps British Columbia took after signing the Memorandum of Understanding with Governor Schweitzer, I knew it was a foundation of cooperation that we could build on. We worked hard to find a solution that protects the North Fork on the Canadian side without asking American taxpayers to pay the cost of buying out their leases, just like we've done on our side of the border."

Baucus also claimed credit for bringing Doer into the conversation.

In his own statement, Tester mentioned the efforts to get oil companies to relinquish energy leases next to Glacier.

"Thanks to this agreement, American taxpayers won't be asked to buy out leases in Canada," Tester said in an e-mail. "That's critically important, especially after the leases on the American side were retired at no cost to taxpayers. That's what I call a victory, and all the credit goes to these two organizations."

Schweitzer countered that a collection of Glacier oil leases were ruled illegal by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and had expired in the 1990s for lack of activity. But he also agreed the private organization's participation was crucial.

"The Nature Conservancy wouldn't write a deal and hand a check to someone that hasn't lived up to its obligations in the past," Schweitzer said. "We're very assured these lands are protected."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached  at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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