Montana politicians say they might have to get the State Department involved in a bid to halt an open-pit coal mine from being built in British Columbia just north of Glacier National Park. Of course, getting the State Department interested is one thing. Getting the Canadian government interested at the same time is another issue.
At stake with Cline Mining Corporation's proposal is not only the possibility of water pollution flowing south down the Flathead River and into Glacier, but the ecological health of a rugged swath of wilderness that's a vital connector in the so-called Yellowstone to Yukon conservation initiative. The picturesque area is rich in wildlife, from grizzly bears and elk to wolverines and pristine fisheries of bull trout and Westslope cutthroat trout.
"It's probably one of the wildest valleys in the temperate zone of the world," Steve Thompson, who is the senior program manager in the National Park Conservation Association's Glacier Field Office, told me. "It's an amazing place. It has a very, very healthy and diverse wildlife population."
The region also seems to have been blessed with fossil fuel deposits. Cline Mining envisions a mine that would produce 2 million tons of coal annually for 20 years. It's coal that would be sold overseas, most likely in China for use in making steel.
Then, too, there are interests in tapping coalbed methane deposits thought to be trapped beneath the surface, and some think there are recoverable gold deposits up the Howell Creek drainage that sits closer to Glacier. If a gold mine were opened, many think the metal would be recovered via cyanide heap leach methods, which are highly controversial due to environmental threats.
Efforts to tap these resources could have devastating impacts on the Canadian Flathead Valley and those areas downstream in the United States.
"The environmental impacts associated with this massive industrial incursion into the Canadian Flathead would be significant by any measure," Joseph L. Sax and Robert B. Keiter wrote in analyzing the threats that confront Glacier in an article that appeared in the University of California's Ecology Law Quarterly. "Mining projects of this magnitude will require an expansive infrastructure of new roads and pipelines that will have to be constructed on unstable mountainous terrain.
"Water quality degradation is also a major concern," they added. "The proposed Cline coal mine could dramatically increase sedimentation levels and toxic pollutants in North Fork tributary streams and destroy bull trout spawning grounds. Coalbed methane development, based on experience elsewhere, involves extracting massive amounts of alkaline wastewater that must be disposed of somewhere.
"Wildlife would also be put at risk. New roads and drilling rigs will mean habitat loss and fragmentation, increased poaching opportunities, and the severance of key migratory routes."
During a public hearing in Kalispell, Montana, on Monday the governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, and Montana's senior U.S. senator, Max Baucus, indicated they would seek State Department help to prevent the mine from going forward.
Twenty years ago the two countries worked together, through an International Joint Commission, to halt a mine proposed to be developed eight miles north of Glacier in the Cabin Creek drainage of the Canadian Flathead valley.
However, Sax and Keiter, who visited the region in the mid-1980s to examine the threats Glacier then faced and who recently returned to update that report, today say getting similar cooperation from the two countries would be tougher as relations between the two countries are strained.
For more information on the Canadian Flathead and the mining proposal, check out the Flathead Basin Commission's web site, the Flathead Coalition's web site, and the North Fork Preservation Association's web site.