The longstanding relations between the United States and Canada are being strained a bit by a proposal to mine for coal in a biologically rich and diverse region of British Columbia that just happens to be upstream of Glacier National Park.
While U.S. politicians ranging from those in Montana counties all the way up to the U.S. secretary of state's office want Canada to block Cline Mining Corp. from scraping away mountaintops in the headwaters of the Flathead River to reach millions of tons of coal, Canadian officials so far have not been keen on the idea.
The issue will garner some international attention later this month in Spain when the United Nation's World Heritage Center takes up a petition asking that it declare Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park a World Heritage "Site in Danger" due to the potential of mining near the parks.
The "World Heritage Site" designation is extended to places around the world that are considered to be "irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration."
What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.
There currently are 878 World Heritage Sites around the globe. Waterton Lakes and Glacier were added collectively to the list in 1995.
The petition asking that Waterton-Glacier be declared a "Site in Danger" was delivered last month on behalf of 11 conservation groups, some based in the United States, some in Canada. In the petition (attached below) they asked that "(U)ntil British Columbia's land-use regime is changed to protect the values of the adjacent World Heritage site rather than promote mining, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park should be declared a World Heritage Site in Danger."
Signatories to the petition were the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society, Dogwood Initiative, Flathead Coalition, Forest Ethics, Headwaters Montana, National Parks Conservation Association, Pembina Institute, Sierra Club BC, The Wilderness Society, Wildsight, and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
“This is a really sensitive matter at this point between the two governments," Stephen Morris, chief of the National Park Service's office of international affairs, told the Traveler on Thursday. "We’re talking about energy developments in another country that could affect our site. I think if it were a U.S. mine that could affect Canada, and Canada was asking the U.S. to shut down the mine, can you picture what sort of a response there would be? I think it’s self-evident why it’s a sensitive matter.”
So far, Canadian officials don't seem willing to budge on the dispute.
"Their ambassador made a statement after Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) met with him a week or two back, where they essentially said. 'We don’t think there’s a threat, there’s no mining going on right now,'" said Mr. Morris. "I think Canada’s perspective is quite different from what some in the U.S. feel.”
In Canada, Chloe O'Loughlin, the executive director of CPAWS's British Columbia chapter, agreed that the dispute is sensitive.
“There’s local interests, provincial interests, First Nations interests, national interests and international interests at play. All asking for slightly different things," she said from her Vancouver office. "So, it’s trying to figure out a solution that will balance all of those. But, the other non-public thing is that the local MLA (legislator) would die on his sword rather than let a park be established in his riding. He’s voted against every single park establishment in this province.”
The petition to the World Heritage Committee is just the latest attempt to block mining in the headwaters of the Flathead River. Requests have been made by the governor of Montana, the state's congressional delegation, and even top Interior officials in Washington.
Ideally, opponents of the mine would like to see the Canadian Flathead protected as an addition to Waterton Lakes National Park.
"It’s long been recognized that there’s a missing piece to that park when you look at Waterton. It’s only on the eastern side of the continental divide, it’s only in Alberta," said Will Hammerquist, who works in the NPCA's Glacier Field Office. "There’s no protection for the British Columbian Flathead, which is 330,000 acres. And there’s been a proposal on the table to create a better peace park for nearly 100 years. It was the first park superintendent, John Kootenay Brown -- one of those legendary western superintendents who took care of these parks and also poached in them -- he was the first to identify really what would make sense would be to expand Waterton-Lakes National Park into British Columbia.”
Tucked into British Columbia's southeastern corner, just about 25 miles north of Glacier National Park and due west of Waterton Lakes National Park, the Canadian Flathead Valley is a 40-mile swath of sawtooth-tipped mountains and alluvial plains that cradle the headwaters of the Flathead River. That ruggedness, with its resident grizzly bears, wolves, elk, lynx, mountain goat, wolverine and pristine fisheries of bull trout and Westslope cutthroat trout, has prompted one biologist to tag the area as "the single most important basin for carnivores in the Rocky Mountains."
The ecological value of the area wasn't overlooked -- but seemingly was ignored -- back in 1995 when the Waterton Lakes-Glacier was designated a World Heritage Site. Indeed, in its summary of the landscape the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated that, "the essential point is that the (Waterton-Glacier) unit is less complete in its coverage of the ecosystem than existing World Heritage Sites in the region. This could make the unit more prone to loss of species in the long run unless extra effort is made to manage cooperatively the public and private lands that adjoin the parks."
Taking a larger look at the landscape, the transboundary Crown of the Continent region, including the Flathead Valley, is one of the most intact, diverse and connected ecosystems in the temperate zones of the world. Characterized by remoteness and farsighted conservation practices, the core of the Crown of the Continent consists of transboundary land encompassing Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and Lincoln Scapegoat Wilderness areas.
Against such a backdrop, the proposal by Cline Mining Corp. to sink an open-pit coal mine into the area could have devastating impacts on the Canadian Flathead Valley and those areas downstream in the United States, according to those who have looked into the matter.
Here's how the U.S. Interior Department described the potential impacts in February 2007 (see attachment for full document):
Cline states that there will be 16 million tons of overburden rock removed each year from this
mine and that this crushed and broken rock will be deposited along the banks of Foisey Creek
and Crabb Creek in the Flathead River drainage. Water from rain and snow will leach through
these overburden materials and will enter the Flathead River system carrying heavy metals such
as selenium and high levels of nitrates from blasting compounds. It has been estimated that
water leaching through these overburden materials will reach the border of the United States in
24 hours and will enter Flathead Lake in approximately 48 hours. Mine development, including
associated construction activities, providing transportation corridors, the operation of heavy
equipment and increased settlement, and human activity in and around the project area is
expected to have significant adverse impacts upon fish and wildlife of high importance to the
United States and under the direct purview of the Interior.
On June 27 the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will meet in Seville, Spain, and one of the topics for consideration will be a petition (attached below) presented on behalf of 11 conservation organizations asking that UNESCO declare Waterton-Glacier a World Heritage Site in Danger.
While National Park Service officials in April forwarded their concerns over the project to Interior Department officials for inclusion in the World Heritage conservation report, Mr. Morris said those comments had not yet been released publicly. Additionally, he said he could not expound on ongoing discussions within Interior and the Park Service over the approach they would take at the upcoming meeting.
“At this point that’s still being worked out," he said. "I really can’t be more forthcoming, but as I said it’s a sensitive matter and a lot has yet to be decided at this point, some of the specific discussions that we might have.”
The question of whether to attach the "site in danger" designation is not decided, though, merely on the biological and pollution issues at play. Politics hold great sway. Such a "site in danger" declaration did add weight in the battle against a gold mine proposed to burrow into the mountains just beyond Yellowstone National Park's northeastern corner in the 1990s. But while the World Heritage Center in 2003 urged the United States to work on phasing out snowmobiling in Yellowstone "to ensure that winter travel facilities respect the protection of the Park, its visitors, and its wildlife," at the same time it removed a "site in danger" declaration from the park, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1978.
More recently, World Heritage officials in 2007 oddly agreed to remove Everglades National Park from the list of sites in danger. The designation had been bestowed in 1993 because of urban pressures and storm damage. Seemingly overlooked by the committee when it removed the designation were continued growth in south Florida and lack of progress on efforts to restore natural water flows through the Everglades.
“It’s inherently political," Mr. Morris said of the World Heritage Commission. "It’s not totally political, but politics clearly affects it (the committee). These are government representatives who answer to politicians.”
Back at CPAWS, Ms. O'Louglin said the two countries have an obligation under international convention to find a solution.
“It’s an international obligation to be working collaboratively on a trans-border international river," she said. "There are 263 international trans-border rivers in the world, and no other country anywhere on the globe threatens another country’s well-being by mining in the headwaters.”
Hammerquist of the NPCA hopes the petition provides a spark to find a solution.
"We’re going to hopefully see a State of Conservation report that is comprehensive in documenting what the challenges are in protecting the values of the peace park," he said. "But I think the focus at this point that we’re looking at with the localized, regional threats to the ecological integrity of the park is these proposed strip mines that are huge and massive and in the parks’ headwaters. We’re talking about moving 320 million tons of dirt and taking off the top of a mountain and pushing it into the wildest and most pristine river valley left in the 48 states. It’s just the epitome of a bad idea."
Somewhat ironic is the fact that Waterton-Glacier became the world's first international peace park in 1932 to signify the peace and friendship between the two nations.
“I think it (the peace park designation) creates even a greater sense of the need for cooperation and for the United States and Canada to get together and craft a long-term solution that works for both countries," said Mr. Hammerquist. "That’s kind of the irony, the peace park was established to commemorate the special and unique relationship between Canada and the United States. You don’t want to see land-management decisions impair that resource and impair that legacy as well.”
While it's quite likely that the World Heritage Committee will not attach the "Site in Danger" designation to Waterton-Glacier -- politically, it would be highly unusual unless Canadian officials also endorsed the designation -- Ms. O'Loughlin said there are other avenues the committee could go down.
"There’s a likelihood that they would say nothing. What we’ve asked them specifically is that they recommend that the land-use plan that covers the Flathead Valley be changed, because the land-use plan says basically that energy and mining development trumps all," said Ms. O'Loughlin. "It trumps protection conservation, it trumps the values established in the World Heritage Site."
Traveler footnote: CPAWS officials on Thursday sent out an "action alert" to their members asking that they contact their elected representatives to protest the Cline Mine. Here in the United States the group asks that you contact members of your congressional delegation to oppose the mine.
Take action: Send a message to Canada and the United States that mining and energy development does not belong upstream of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in the Flathead River Valley.
Suggested Letter to Decision-Makers:
I am writing to support the international petition to declare Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site In Danger.
The World Heritage site is threatened by British Columbia’s land use plan for the adjacent Flathead River Valley.
We need a long-term solution that will protect the Flathead River Valley, the “Serengeti of the North”, especially as the ranges of some species shift due to climate change.
Please save Waterton-Glacier:
Put an immediate, permanent stop to drilling and mining in the Flathead River Valley.
Fill in the missing piece of Waterton Glacier International Peace Park by creating a National Park in the lower one-third of the Flathead River Valley.
Establish a Wildlife Management Area in the rest of the valley and adjoining habitat that preserves essential wildlife corridors in the Flathead, Wigwam, Elk and Bull River valleys, and links to protected areas further north.