For 40 years fighting to protect the North Fork
By Chris Peterson
News from Hungry Horse
It was 1982. The Canadians were planning to prune the top of a mountain just north of Glacier National Park for the Cabin Creek coal mine.
The results for the North Fork of the Flathead River would have been significant and deleterious to the park and the river.
So a few like-minded North Forkers got together and decided to fight the mine.
Frank Vitale was at that first meeting, along with John Frederick and several others.
The North Fork Preservation Association was born. This weekend it will celebrate 40 years as an organization.
Vitale would stay with the organization for decades; he was vice-president for 25 years.
The fight against the Cabin Creek Coal Mine was a galvanizing event. The late Frederick bought stock in Rio Algom, the company proposing the mine, so he could attend shareholder meetings in the East and oppose the mine.
“There were all these big, rich oil tycoons,” Vitale recalls. “And then John Frederick in a 10 gallon hat and bolo tie.”
Other threats to North Fork and its way of life have also increased over the years.
Coal bed methane, oil wells, natural gas wells. Vitale recalled that an oil company representative stopped by his North Fork home, wanting him to sign a drilling lease.
“Ma’am,” he said. “Get in your truck and get out of here.”
But some accepted the offer.
In 1989, Tom Ladenburg, North Fork’s largest landowner, authorized Cenex to drill an exploratory oil well at Home Ranch Bottoms.
The NFPA sued the state Oil and Gas Board on the grounds that the proper environmental review had not been performed – and they won. Vitale recalled that the pit platform was surrounded by floodlights and barbed wire to keep people out.
The well did not work and in a reversal of fortune, Ladenburg, at the twilight of his life, put his ranch – over 2,000 acres, into a conservation easement brokered by the Nature Conservancy, protecting it from energy and of the subdivision.
Coal pit and mining proposals would continue to threaten North Fork for decades. But some arguments have been settled over the years. The threat of industrial mining and development in the North Fork on both sides of the border was largely over.
In 2014, Congress passed the North Fork Watershed Protection Act which removed all minerals on federal lands in the United States’ North Fork watershed from “future entry”, as a countermeasure to the ” BC Cabinet’s Flathead Watershed Protection Act of 2010, which prohibited such in Canada.
Over the years, not everything has been as controversial as coal mines and oil wells.
The NFPA was a key voice in the North Fork Neighborhood Plan, which, among other things, capped the subdivision of new lots at 20 acres on private land.
They also met with other stakeholders in the Whitefish Range Partnership, which helped develop language in the 2018 Forest Plan for Flathead National Forest.
The plan, a truly collaborative effort, does its best to balance the demands for timber, wildlife, wilderness and recreation on Forest Service North Fork lands.
There are still controversies, of course.
The push to pave the lower North Fork route from Glacier Rim to Camas Bridge is a long-standing dispute.
Flannery Fruend, the current president of the NFPA, said the organization continues to oppose any effort to pave the way.
“This is Flathead’s most iconic backyard,” she notes. It’s still one of the few places in Lower 48 without electricity. One of the few places without cell phone service. One of the few places with grizzly bears and wolverines and a largely intact ecosystem.
Yes, there are challenges to overcome, she says.
“But it’s all worth fighting for,” she said.
The NFPA will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a dinner and presentation on July 23 at Sondreson Hall to the North Fork with an indigenous meal at 5:30 p.m., followed by a short business meeting at 6:45 p.m. and an author’s talk Sally Thompson at 7:30 p.m. on her co-authored book, “People before the Park.”