State Senator Mike Cuffe (R-Eureka) is stepping down as president of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Zone (PNWER) after two years of leading US-Canadian cooperation.
Looking back on his tenure, Cuffe noted a recent summit in Montana that he helped orchestrate as a significant achievement. After conducting most of their online business during the pandemic, many PNWER members were able to meet at Big Sky to discuss regional issues and policies.
PNWER members include representatives of the public and private sectors from the US states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Washington and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan and the territories of the Northwest Territories and Yukon.
While some Canadian officials had trouble crossing the border for the event, Cuffe said more than 300 people attended the Big Sky summit. At least 123 members attended remotely. Cuffe said over 50 Montana state lawmakers along with other members of the state government attended the meeting.
One of the conference’s most significant results was an action article urging Congress to set up a U.S.-Canada commission to examine the effects of the pandemic on ties between the two countries.
What we discovered is that the pandemic has revealed the extent and importance of social, economic and cultural ties [between the U.S and Canada], said Cuffe.
The importance of these connections was particularly evident in Lincoln County, where many residents have family members across the border. Prior to the pandemic, local business owners relied on Canadian visitors for support. The Eureka area had become known to residents of British Columbia looking for second homes.
Cuffe noted that due to the closure of the land border between Canada and the US for non-essential travel, many travelers have had to replace a short car with a series of flights during the pandemic. For many people, this turned out to be very expensive.
PNWER members envisioned the international commission having a 20-year view towards making recommendations. The commission can be funded through Congress on a three-year budget managed by the Woodrow Wilson Center. Panel members would include representatives from academic institutions, civil society and the private sector.
During the summit, Cuffe also got involved in discussions about the Columbia River Treaty, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada that regulates dams in the upper Columbia River Basin.
With the treaties, current flood risk management provisions amended in 2024, Cuffe said Canadian dams will soon be able to hold the water needed for Montana’s agriculture, energy and recreational needs. Cuffe has advocated for the renegotiation of these terms and has pushed the Lincoln County to receive compensation for the timber lands it lost with the creation of the Koocanusa Reservoir.
As part of the energy discussion, Cuffe helped build support for sending a letter to the EPA administrator asking the agency to allow renewable oil facilities that use canola oil.
Cuffe said his two-year service as president of PNWER was unusual. Most presidents serve only one year, but due to the Cuffe pandemic it stayed for a second. Cuffe became vice president of the organization in 2015.
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