After Four Decades, a Victory for the North Fork

After four decades, the Flathead River is protected.

Scott Bosse

It’s been said that good things come to those who wait.

After four decades, the wait is finally over for all the citizens and conservation groups who have patiently and persistently fought to maintain the integrity of the North Fork of the Flathead River watershed along the western boundary of Glacier National Park.

Last month, President Obama signed legislation to formally withdraw 430,000 acres of public land in the North Fork watershed from all new mineral entry. The legislation fulfills a 2010 deal negotiated between the state of Montana and the Canadian province of British Columbia.

The North Fork is born in the mountains of British Columbia and flows south for 153 miles before emptying into Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the western United States. Over the years, it has faced multiple threats from proposed open-pit coal mines, gold mines and oil and gas drilling, prompting American Rivers to name it one of the nation’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2009.

As a follow-up to the 2010 North Fork deal, mining and energy companies with valid existing claims on the Canadian side of the watershed were paid $10 million to forfeit the right to mine and drill in the future. While mining and energy companies on the U.S. side of the border voluntarily surrendered more than 200,000 acres of claims, roughly 50,000 acres of existing claims remain. Extinguishing those claims will be the next chapter in the North Fork saga.

If you’ve never been to the North Fork, it is difficult to describe its beauty in words. For while the river itself is crystal clear and the views of the Livingston Range are truly spectacular, the North Fork’s real beauty lies in its abundance of wildlife. As one of the last intact low-elevation river corridors in the western U.S., it is home to every wildlife species that was present when Lewis and Clark passed through Montana more than two centuries ago, including the highest concentration of grizzly bears in Interior North America.

I was fortunate to spend a winter doing wildlife research in the North Fork when I was a graduate student at the University of Montana in 1991. While I was there, I kept a daily journal. As I started writing this blog, I re-read that journal for the first time in a long while. One thing I wrote really stuck with me:

“In the future, my concept of beauty will be measured against this place.”

There are many places I’ve been to that are more beautiful to the eye than the North Fork, but there are few whose wild soul remains so intact.

Thanks to you and everyone else who rallied to her defense for so many years, the North Fork’s wild soul will continue to inspire people for generations to come.

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