On the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the lieutenant governor of British Columbia has announced that the province will not allow mining in the Canadian Flathead just north of Glacier National Park and due west of Waterton Lakes National Park.
The announcement, coming in the annual "Throne Speech" that outlines the government's priorities, understandably was applauded by conservationists, while at least one company with mining interests in the region declared it would seek compensation for the reserves it will not be able to develop.
"A new partnership with Montana will sustain the environmental values in the Flathead River Basin in a manner consistent with current forestry, recreation, guide outfitting and trapping uses," Lt. Governor Steven L. Point said Tuesday in an address at the opening session of the British Columbia Parliament. "It will identify permissible land uses and establish new collaborative approaches to trans‑boundary issues. Mining, oil and gas development and coalbed gas extraction will not be permitted in British Columbia's Flathead Valley."
Lt. Governor Point's announcement was particularly surprising because for years the province's land-use plan for the Canadian Flathead called foremost for mining, according to National Parks Conservation Association officials in Montana.
"This basically, dramatically, and very importantly changes the land-management plan," said Steve Thompson, NPCA's program manager in Montana. "The land-management plan previously said coal-bed gas, coal, mining ... that’s the highest priority. What this does is completely changes that. Takes the top priority use off the table entirely. That’s significant.”
In Glacier Park, Superintendent Chas Cartwright welcomed the news.
"The news from British Columbia of a mining ban in the Canadian Flathead Valley is fantastic! We are anxious to learn details of the agreement to be signed by Premier Campbell and Governor Schweitzer. We look forward to participating in any cooperative effort to conserve the World Heritage Site, including positive actions we can take in the United States," he said.
For years environmental and conservation groups on both sides of the border have been fighting projects to mine coal, coal-bed methane, and gold in the scenic valley that some wildlife biologists have proclaimed the wildest valley in North America. That pressure convinced the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's World Heritage Committee to dispatch a team of experts to the area last September to determine what impact mining might have on the two national parks. In January a draft report from the field team said mining would harm both parks.
“It’s been a long haul, that’s for sure, and a complex decision for all governments," said Chloe O'Loughlin, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's British Columbia office. “It was an excellent, excellent announcement, but for us it’s a first step because there’s no national park and no wildlife management area that would allow animals from Glacier to go up safely to the Rocky Mountain parks (in Canada)."
“We expected something, because we knew that British Columbia was getting a lot of pressure, probably first and foremost from their own constituencies, and then Montana, and the U.S. government and the World Heritage Commission, and the United Nations," said the NPCA's Mr. Thompson. "We knew they wanted to do something, we didn’t know what it would be.”
Tucked into British Columbia's southeastern corner, 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."
Together Glacier and Waterton Lakes also protect an important biological crossroads at the point where the Rocky Mountains reach their narrowest width. The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park also serves as a celebration of the longest undefended contiguous border between two nations and a reminder that many natural resources have no boundaries.
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.
Lt. Governor Point's announcement naturally dismayed officials at Max Resource Corp., which in December announced that it had tapped into extensive gold ore beds in the region. The lieutenant governor's announcement "will effectively prevent any further exploration or development of the Company's Crowsnest gold project, which is located in the Flathead Valley watershed," a statement on Max Resource's website said.
"We are surprised and disappointed by the Government's action," said Stuart Rogers, president of MAX, "given our outstanding exploration results at Crowsnest in 2009. And we will seek adequate compensation."
Despite the euphoria created in some camps by the announcement, much work remains to be done. Ms. O'Loughlin said it was her understanding that Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was expected to travel to Vancouver next week to sign a memorandum of understanding with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell. While she didn't have details of that MOU, her understanding was that it would require Montana to commit to preservation work in the Flathead Valley on the U.S. side of the border.
A call to Gov. Schweitzer's office Wednesday was not immediately returned.
Beyond the MOU, both Ms. O'Loughlin and Mr. Thompson pointed to efforts to create a preserve, possibly in the form of a new national park, possibly an extension of Waterton Lakes National Park, in the Canadian Flathead.
Stephen Morris, the National Park Service's chief of international affairs, said last month that among the recommendations in the World Heritage Committee field team's report were that Canada and the United States develop a single wildlife conservation management plan for the region and that there be "further cooperation between Waterton Lakes and Glacier, we support that. ...We remain committed to working with our Canadian counterparts to find an acceptable solution that will preserve the World Heritage Site.”
Additionally, there's the matter of determining compensation for the companies that hold mining interests in the Canadian Flathead.