Flathead Basin Commission survives and evolves

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Subtle evening light, McDonald Creek.

The Flathead Basin Commission lives on after the gutting of its budget in 2017, the firing in 2018 of its executive director and the emergence of two organizations with similar missions.

The commission, established by the Montana Legislature in 1983, is scheduled to meet March 20 in Whitefish.

The Flathead Basin Commission’s mission continues to evolve, moving from an intense focus on aquatic invasive species to placing more emphasis on other threats to water quality in the basin.

Recently, Caryn Miske, former executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, sued the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, alleging she was wrongfully fired by the department in February 2018.

The department had criticized Miske for characterizing the Flathead Basin Commission as a “watchdog” of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and for other activities it felt exceeded her authority and the commission’s scope and mission.

Miske’s defenders have said her assertiveness about the threat of aquatic invasive species helped get the state off the dime to address the issue.

Today, Mike Koopal, executive director of the Whitefish Lake Institute, serves on both the Flathead Basin Commission and the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, often referred to as UC3.

The Montana Legislature established the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission in 2017 to “protect the aquatic environment in tributaries to the Columbia River from the threat of invasive species.”

Koopal said the Flathead Basin Commission recently completed a two-year work plan that identified three focus areas: water quality, conservation planning and addressing emerging natural-resource issues in the Flathead Basin.

He said the commission is working on the issue of septic systems leaching bacteria, nutrients and other pollutants into regional waterbodies and also on a proposal to inventory stormwater in the basin.

“These are non-point source issues that can be mitigated through various tools,” Koopal said, “but it will take effective collaboration, and that’s where FBC shines.”

He said the commission will continue to support aquatic invasive species management in the basin, but said “it is not a primary focus of the group.”

Koopal said the Flathead Basin Commission “has re-tooled and is positioned to continue an active leadership in natural-resource issues.”

He said the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission “has become the voice for aquatic invasive species [management] in the Flathead Basin.”

Meanwhile, Miske became the executive director of Watershed Protection Advocates of Northwest Montana, which formed in 2018. It traces its roots to the Flathead Basin Protection Fund and the Flathead Basin Commission, which formed the fund when the commission’s state funding began to erode.

Jan Metzmaker is chairwoman of Watershed Protection Advocates of Northwest Montana. She was asked about what role the Flathead Basin Commission might play moving forward.

“Good question,” she replied. “With the firing of Caryn and defunding of the commission, there is no oversight anymore. They are pretty much under the thumb of the DNRC.”

Metzmaker added, “I hope they find a mission because the Flathead Basin Commission is a unique organization that has accomplished a great deal in the past and has many influential board members.”

For fiscal 2019, the Flathead Basin Commission funding includes $20,175 from the Natural Resource Operations account and $17,158 available from a federal grant from the U.S. Forest Service. Other funding sources provide staff for the commission through the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

In the fall of 2017, before state budget cuts, the commission’s budget was $149,263.

The Flathead Basin Commission meeting on Wednesday, March 20, will be at Whitefish City Council chambers in Whitefish City Hall.

The public meeting begins at 11 a.m. Discussions about septic leachate, stormwater and efforts to restore Ashley Creek will begin at 1 p.m.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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