Why the Flathead River Gets Protected and the Tongue River Gets the Pollution

Photo courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service

North Fork of the Flathead – Photo courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service

Don’t get me wrong. I’m 100 percent in favor of protecting the North Fork of the Flathead River in northwestern Montana. It’s a no brainer. The watershed is important for wildlife, recreation, tourism and agriculture, and it is under threat from mining and oil and gas development in Montana and across the border in Canada.

That is why Montana’s entire congressional delegation has lined up in support of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a bill that will permanently protect the American side of the North Fork watershed from new energy development. Well done to the conservationists, hunters and community members who made it possible. NWF has worked on this issue and is fully supportive of the effort.

Representative Steve Daines (R) stated,

“As a fifth generation Montana sportsman, I know how special the treasure state is. Our state’s rivers and mountains and our outdoor heritage are an important part of every Montanan’s way of life and play an important role in our state’s economy. It’s important that we work together to protect these valuable resources.”

Senator Max Baucus (D) said,

“All you have to do is look one ridgeline over to know how close the North Fork has to being ruined,” Baucus said. “Just last week, the Kootenai River was declared one of America’s most endangered rivers because of heavy metal runoff from Canadian mines into Montana. The only reason we know about that pollution is because of research the Congress has funded comparing the Kootenai to the North Fork. I am pressing our Canadian neighbors to apply the lessons of the Flathead to the Kootenai.”

Isn’t it nice when Republicans and Democrats can agree on something?

The politics of protection

So, based on what Senator Baucus and Representative Daines have said about the Flathead River, let’s take a look at another great Montana river, the Tongue River and see if it meets their criteria for protection.

  • The watershed must be important to Montana’s outdoor heritage
  • The watershed must be important to Montana’s economy
  • The watershed must be under grave and imminent threat from mining.

Tongue River Valley in southeastern Montana

Tongue River Valley in southeastern Montana. Photo by: Alexis Bonogofsky

Well, let’s see. Is the Tongue River important to Montana’s outdoor heritage? Yes. The Tongue River watershed is a premier destination for hunters, anglers and has been identified as one of the finest big game hunting regions in Montana by Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Is the Tongue River important to Montana’s economy? Yes. The Tongue River watershed provides irrigation for hundreds of farmers and ranchers in southeastern Montana contributing over $22 million per year in gross revenue that in turn will contribute billions of dollars to Montana’s economy in the coming decades. Think I’m exaggerating? Check out this extremely detailed Agriculture in the Tongue River Basin paper put out by Montana State University’s Agricultural Economics Department.

Is the Tongue River under threat from energy development including oil, gas and mining? Yes. The Tongue River watershed will be the dumping ground for one of the largest proposed coal mines in the country (Otter Creek coal mine) and is already impaired by coalbed methane water discharge and coal mining from the Decker and Spring Creek coal mines.

The Tongue River has met all three criteria: it is important for outdoor recreation, hunting and wildlife; it is important to our economy; and it is under threat from mining.

Seems to me that Senator Baucus, Representative Daines and Senator Tester should be all in favor of protecting the Tongue River in the same manner that they are working to protect the North Fork of the Flathead. If they didn’t, it might seem inconsistent, unfair and hypocritical? No wait, it isn’t that it might seem that way, it is that way.

It will come as no surprise to you that not one politician that I am aware of, has ever come out in favor of protecting the Tongue River from mining pollution.

Former Mayor of Miles City, Joe Whalen. Photo from his blog, http://churchoftheexaltedbuckaroo.blogspot.com/

Former Mayor of Miles City, Joe Whalen. Photo from his blog, http://churchoftheexaltedbuckaroo.blogspot.com/

But I forget myself, there is one politician that has stood up for the Tongue River.  His name is Joe Whalen, the former Mayor of Miles City, Montana and a guy who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes. He also was one of the first to say that eastern Montana needed to prepare for infrastructure impacts from the Bakken. So, here’s a shout out to Mayor Joe!

But besides Mayor Joe, there has been silence on protection of the Tongue River watershed. Well maybe not silence. Our Congressional delegation actually encourages the energy development that will end up hurting the region’s sustainable agricultural and hunting economies.



So, why does the Flathead River get protected and the Tongue River get the pollution?

Ranchers Mark Fix and Brad Sauer hold up East Fork of the Flathead sign in 2010.

Ranchers Mark Fix and Brad Sauer hold up East Fork of the Flathead sign in 2010.

I’m not the first to pontificate about this question. Wally McRae, cowboy poet and rancher in the valley has asked this question for decades and a few years back, ranchers on the Tongue River symbolically renamed the Tongue River the East Fork of the Flathead in hopes that it would bring attention to the river and the impacts of oil and gas and coal mining.

This question has been raised over and over because those of us who live, work, play and hunt in southeastern Montana know how special it is. And, I’ll admit, we tend to have a chip on our shoulders about the perception that eastern Montana is not the “true Montana.” That Montana is only about the majestic mountains and snow caps and trout streams.

(Shhh..don’t tell anyone but the first 10 miles of the Tongue River below the dam has some great trout fishing. Sorry KVD)

My own bias is that if you want to see Montana and literally walk in the footsteps of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Custer, see the biggest bull elk you’ll ever see and float down a river that is the best kept secret in the state, come to southeastern Montana.

So what is it?

Is it possible that it is because the people that rely on the Tongue River, the farmers, ranchers and Cheyennes, aren’t rich and politically powerful? Is it because some people in western Montana don’t think eastern Montana is worth saving or maybe they think that a majority of people in eastern Montana want the development (which isn’t true but understandable considering the media doesn’t seem to want to cover the local public opposition to the mine and railroad)?

Is it because raising food isn’t as important to politicians as digging coal?

And while I’m at it…

Why is a multinational coal company who plans to seize land from Montana citizens for their railroad and then mine and ship coal overseas more important than people who live there?

I want to know.

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