Caven Wade

(UM Legislative News Service) The Senate Natural Resource committee heard testimony on Monday, Jan. 23, on a bill that would form one conservation commission in northwest Montana to protect the area's water resources.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, is sponsoring Senate Bill 83 on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The bill combines the Flathead Basin Commission and the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission, or UC3, into the Western Montana Conservation Commission.

The new commission would consist of 16 members who vote on ideas to handle aquatic resources. The governor would appoint nine of the voting members on the commission.

"In the beginning, Flathead Basin Commission had wanted to be a bigger part of UC3, and for various reasons, at that time, they were kept separate," Cuffe said.

The Upper Columbia Conservation Commission deals with aquatic invasive species because zebra mussels were increasingly beginning to make their way from British Columbia, Canada, down into northwestern Montana waters. The influx of invasive species created an ecological concern for the area. 

Cuffe said that UC3 eliminated the mussels in the area and has served its purpose. He added that it's the perfect time to combine the commissions because they share similar issues.

"It seemed very common sense that this would be the proper time, the proper action to make a consolidation of the two commissions," Cuffe said.

Cuffe also said there is a "guarantee" that the combination wouldn't have a negative impact on invasive species protection in the area.

The Governor's Office supports SB 83 and helped create the plan to combine the commissions as part of their "red-tape relief initiative."

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras said that they are two of the largest commissions in the state, and joining the staff together would make them more productive.

"That would allow the staff, which would remain the same, to spend more time on the mission, and the grant writing, and the boots on the ground implementation work of the excellent ideas and concepts that these commissions bring to the table," Juras said.

There were no opponents at the bill's hearing.