Slouching Towards Polebridge 

An environmentalist seeks shelter for the millennium

I don’t know about you, but I’m a wee disappointed about how New Year’s Eve is shaping up.

Mostly I’m happy to hear experts say the world isn’t going to stop in its tracks next Friday at midnight. Most of me breathes a sigh of relief.

But there’s a small part of me that was looking forward to Y2K, the canned goods, a cozy wife, and our new wood stove.

If we all had to slow down a bit and reacquaint ourselves with local sources of food and our neighbors, would that be so bad? Y2K might be tough for a telecommuter like myself, but hey, I’ve got a Mac. It’s those other guys who need to worry.

Alas, those idle daydreams are whispers in the vapor trail of a hellbent global economy. The techies have pinned the Luddites again. At least that’s what the techies are saying. But I’m going to have a self-imposed Y2K anyway. I’m going to Polebridge.

Polebridge is a tiny settlement up the North Fork of the Flathead, about 45 miles north of Kalispell. Polebridge is off the grid, and residents wouldn’t know if the world’s electronic circuitry came to a grinding halt. Propane, candles and kerosene already are part of daily life in Polebridge.

Montanans like to boast that Montana is what America was. A more accurate statement would be that Polebridge is what Montana was. Whereas too many Montana towns look like Anyplace, USA, with strip development, fast-food outlets, big-box retailers, and dozens of TV channels, the North Fork is different.

Grizzly bears still wander regularly across the valley bottom, the highest non-coastal density of grizzlies in North America. This is where wolves naturally recolonized the American West in 1979, and the surrounding mountains are a hot spot for lynx and wolverines. Elk can be seen grazing by the side of the road. The waters are clean and undammed, providing critical habitat for native trout. No street lights obscure the starlit sky.

The hardy residents of the North Fork like it this way. Most of them resist efforts by outside developers and politicians to pave the bumpy dirt road that dead-ends at the Canadian border. They frequent the rustic Polebridge Mercantile, but they don’t want any more commercial development. Self-reliance is a necessary trait, but the sense of community is strong among the 100 or so year-round residents.

The few drafty cabins available for rent in the Polebridge area will be filled with dog mushers on hand for the annual Root Beer Classic dog-sled race. Keeping warm will be a major preoccupation for everyone but the dogs. Kerrie and I have rung in the New Year with our Polebridge friends before, and it seems the perfect place to zero out the millennial odometer.

Ironically, maintaining the North Fork’s strong environmental values and sense of community may require some newfangled tools in the form of a unique transboundary conservation strategy between Canada and the United States. As it is, the North Fork is being nickel-and-dimed to death so that it soon may resemble any other Montana community where old-timers swap stories about the way things were.

Montana Sen. Conrad Burns and Flathead County Commissioner Dale Williams want to pave the road to promote increased tourism and development. Developers are standing by to sell subdivision lots. Powerful new snowmobiles shatter the mountain quietude in the Whitefish mountains that drain the west side of the valley.

To the north, Canadian miners are searching for coal and gold, while loggers are building extensive road networks to future clearcuts. Motorized recreationists in British Columbia see a vast potential playground on their side of the Flathead.

The haphazard development threatening to unravel life in the North Fork—human and critter life—is not inevitable. This month, a diverse collection of state, federal and private sector representatives moved to resurrect a visionary proposal offered by former Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden more than a decade ago.

The Flathead Basin Commission endorsed the notion of an international watershed board to coordinate resource management and conservation strategies in the transboundary Flathead.

In 1988, Gov. Schwinden proposed the creation of an “International Conservation Reserve” for the North Fork watershed, which rises from mountainous headwaters 40 miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border. This was in response to a four-year international incident in which U.S. and Canadian scientists, diplomats and politicians sparred over a proposed open-pit coal mine in the Canadian Flathead.

Schwinden’s proposal was embraced by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a treaty-based organization established by the United States and Canada to resolve transboundary disputes over water resources. However, the proposed mine faded under the heat of international politics and weak markets, and the IJC recommendations were never adopted by Ottawa and Washington, D.C.

Gov. Schwinden’s successor, Republican Stan Stephens, did his part to keep the vision alive. B.C. government officials were reluctant to work on a bi-national conservation strategy, so Stephens decided that Montana’s bargaining position would be stronger if we got our own act together. Accordingly, he instructed the Flathead Basin Commission to convene private and government interests to develop a Montana conservation plan.

After a year’s worth of meetings, the collaborative group reached a remarkable consensus in 1992 where everyone agreed to sacrifice short-term profit and comfort to preserve the North Fork.

Unfortunately, the Canadians didn’t respond in kind. A similar local roundtable in British Columbia produced a conservation plan that was gutted by industry lobbyists up the political food chain in Victoria.

As prospects for transboundary cooperation faded, Montana participants soon forgot about their own consensus strategy. Thus, while the collaborative group agreed the North Fork road should not be paved, the politicians and development interests have forged ahead with this controversial project by securing $2.4 million from Congress.

Fortunately, fresh threats to the North Fork have breathed life into Schwinden’s decade-old proposal. The Flathead Basin Commission’s renewed push for an international conservation strategy parallels the resurgence of a transboundary alliance of B.C. and Montana environmentalists.

If the techies are wrong and Y2K disrupts modern life, perhaps the foot soldiers of progress will be diverted from the North Fork. Or not. Either way, I won’t be worried about it on New Year’s Day. I’ll be in Polebridge.

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